How do you follow up a classic?
Japandroids’ 2012 effort Celebration Rock is widely considered a rock and roll classic, less than five full years after its release. With good reason, too. It’s the rare kind of album that’s built almost wholly out of genre cliches, but delivers them so cleverly and so passionately that it feels like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It falls rightfully in line with yesteryear’s classics like Springsteen and The Replacements, dressed up for a new generation. So, again, how do you follow up a classic?
If you’re Japandroids, you super size everything.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life kicks off with the title track, which immediately feels like the next step from Celebration Rock’s closing “Continuous Thunder.” More than anything else, it’s a straightforward and unabashed rock and roll song – that is to say, it’s classic Japandroids. Even though we haven’t heard from the band since 2012, as soon as that towering riff comes in, it feels like no time has passed at all. The fun continues on “North East South West,” which rivals “The House That Heaven Built” for the band’s best hook – the gang chant of “north, east, south, west, coast to coast!” is one of the catchier choruses I’ve ever heard. But something weird happens about three-fourths of the way in. The song stops for a second; when it comes back, it’s morphed into a borderline alt-country coda. It’s the first time we’ve heard the band stepping outside their stylistic box, but sure isn’t the last.
On the whole, the album is a slower, less outwardly celebratory one than their last. It’s the dreaded (or anticipated, depending) ‘mature’ album. But it’s a fuller record, too. It’s the album’s midpoint where this becomes clearest with the duo of “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” and “Arc of Bar.” The former plays like an introduction to the latter; a brief, glitchy, reverbed out warning shot before the assault of “Arc of Bar.” You’d be forgiven for assuming this song was by some electronic band with a vocalist who just happened to sound and write exactly like Japandroids’ Brian King; it truly sounds like an entirely different band. It’s not built on just a catchy riff and a propelling drumbeat, hell, it’s not built on either of those at all. It’s built on warbly synths and brief bursts of guitar; it feels more in line with The Dismemberment Plan than any of the band’s normal touchstones. But, honestly, for a seven and a half minute track, it feels like it goes nowhere.
It’s a shame, because it’s such a risky and ambitious move to attempt songs like these, but it feels like they totally miss the point of what makes Japandroids so endearing. They’re a simple rock band. There are no pretenses. They’re sincere nearly to the point of being saccharine. And tapping into this so nakedly is what makes Near to the Wild Heart of Life’s last two tracks so good.
More than any other song on the album, “No Known Drink or Drug” sounds like it would’ve fit on their last effort, from the fuzzy intro riff to the “sha la la”s to the climactic chorus. Strip some of the sheen and it could’ve fit in well in the same place as “Younger Us,” as one last jolt of youthful energy before the final two tracks. But, for as good as that song is, it’s immediately outdone by the following track.
There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the vibe of the album. Specifically, there’s a feeling that it isn’t sad enough, given the state of American politics. Donald Trump is president, Republicans hold immeasurable legislative power, and the rights of vulnerable groups across the world are directly threatened by it, and these guys are still just singing about getting fired up? Some poor prioritization, huh? Well, to those people, I’d suggest listening to “In a Body Like a Grave” a little bit closer. Aside from being this album’s best song by a long shot, it goes toe to toe with the best of Japandroids’ back catalog, pulling together their very best tendencies, all tied up with the perhaps best lyrics King’s ever written. When the band kicks into gear in the bridge is when the song really shines as King delivers “an ultimatum to the universe: fuck or fight.” It’s a line so quintessentially Japandroids, so entirely in-the-moment that you’ve got to smile. There will be no rolling over for Japandroids. When things get tough, King has a novel solution for us; he suggests we “love so hard that time stands still.” And after all, isn’t that the spirit we loved them for in the first place? Come what may, I know I’ll always have the good times to look back on, and that’s something I’m reminded of everytime I listen to Japandroids. Even if Near to the Wild Heart of Life has its misses, it still carries that nostalgic feeling I loved to begin with. And it carries that childlike sense of defiance, too. The one that keeps telling me that, if they try to slow me down, to just tell ‘em all to go to hell.