[4 June 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Something interesting has happened to rock music in the past few years. First of all, the digital age has turned into a place that doesn’t champion collective experience and, by extension, the true power of rock music. Artists create music in their bedrooms, creating lush records that we then listen to in our bedrooms. We’re inundated with and celebrate the shut-in wunderkinds, the Garage-Band layering, the headphones record. The Internet culture, for all its far-reaching information and purported connection, is all about exclusivity, isolation.
If this seems like nothing new, it is still particularly important to mention when talking about a band like Japandroids, because they are loud and powerful enough to break through the insularity of laptop recordings and records streamed off of Spotify in a basement office. You can’t listen to Celebration Rock and not feel a part of something bigger, or at least yearn to find that bigger thing. This is a record that shows us a subtle shift that has gone on in rock music since, oh fine, the early ‘90s (though make no mistake, a claim that these guys are post-Nirvana throwbacks is nothing but lazy). Rock music, by and large, has become less about rebellion and more about survival. It’s no longer “fuck their rules”, it’s “let’s make our own” just so we can get through today. Just so we can continue to be us.
That sort of galvanizing, populist thought is what informs and drives Celebration Rock. Brian King and David Prowse have taken the shapeless, blistering energy of Post Nothing and found a focus in bringing crowds together. It makes sense, since Post Nothing was supposed to be a final document from the band before they broke up. As a result, that record was the thundering noise of two guys with nothing left to lose laying the little they had left out there. But the duo has recharged since then, and Celebration Rock isn’t a final stand, it’s a push forward.
“The Nights of Wine and Roses” starts with the distant sound of fireworks, the sound of (fittingly) celebration. But when the jagged guitar cuts into it, and we become part of the party, it’s not all escapism. “Don’t we have anything to live for?,” King shouts, seemingly between belts of beer, before proclaiming, “Well of course we do but until it comes true / We’re drinking.” It’s the kind of party-time wisdom we’ve come to expect from the likes of the Hold Steady—another survival-based rock band—but it sets up an interesting dynamic in the album where the collective us is young and eager to party but not aimless.
Instead, they seem to be building to some critical mass. On “Fire’s Highway”, King suggests we “turn some restless nights to restless years,” while on late-album standout “Adrenaline Nightshift”, he claims that his cohort is “waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin.” The tension of the album rides on this anticipation, on what could happen next, on the power of a focused group of energetic people galvanized. It’s an album that celebrates community. Individuals struggle here: One person in “Fire’s Highway” needs to shake “Gypsy fears”, while the communal “we” simply “dream and now we know”. The record’s most isolated moment is also its most violent, on the duo’s cover of the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. The jilted narrator here plans to “get a gun long as my arm” and “kill everyone who ever done me harm”.
It’s an outlier on the record, as its swampy, rockabilly stomp operates outside the more driving power of the seven songs around it, but it also offers a frustrated counterpoint to the more fruitful anger of community on Celebration Rock. “Younger Us” is a wake-up call for a time before age wore people out, to a time when people swore “we’d sleep when we were dead”. It’s strange perhaps that this comes so late in the record, since that wake-up call seems to have taken effect, since King has already assured us in his bracing howl that “we’re on fire ‘til we die”.
And, as a band, that is exactly how Japandroids sounds here: on fire. Post-Nothing may have struck with its sheer force, but Celebration Rock shapes that on-stage drive into more refined riffs, into more carefully crafted songs. Even without overdubs or much production noodling, Celebration Rock sounds clearer than its predecessor simply because the songs are better, which is no small feat. On top of the slicing riffs and propulsive drums of “Younger Us” or “Adrenaline Nightshift” or “The Nights of Wine and Roses”, we see King improve greatly as a songwriter here. Gone are the terse mantras of Post Nothing, replaced by articulate, aching calls to arms. King may appeal to everyone, but he does so by exposing his own unique desire. When he demands “Gimme that night you were already in bed, / Said fuck it, got up and drank with me instead” on “Younger Us”, he gives us a universal moment of youthful abandon, but you also know he’s deep in his own specific memory, and it’s that personal touch, the deep emotion behind these songs, that gives them their ultimate power, that makes all those communal “woahs” that populate the record swell and stretch to impossible size.
Celebration Rock presents hedonism as a means to an end. There’s nothing nihilistic or sneering about it. It invites everyone to the party, invites us all to have a beer and shout out lyrics to our favorite Replacements’ songs together, invites us to get to know each other and realize we can all get where we’re going if we, just for a minute, remember where we are. Which is lost in a thrash of guitar and drums, lost in the “thunder of a punk’s guitar”. Where that feeling takes us doesn’t matter quite yet, not as much—according to Japandroids—as the belief that it will take us somewhere if we hold onto it.