Japandroids prove once again that they are one of the very best rock bands on Earth with their third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life.
The Canadian rock duo Japandroids have always been equal parts precious and precocious. Their debut album Post-Nothing was powerfully lo-fi, featuring a rigid two-instrument-two-voice delivery system that knocked twee songs into the upper decks with the fury of a hardcore band. Their worldview was beautifully summed up in the band’s first epic, “Young Hearts Spark Fire", which featured the beautiful refrain of: “I don’t wanna worry about dying / I just wanna worry about those sunshine girls.” Post-Nothing is a knowing title. Japandroids certainly did not break any new ground on the album, but they the played with rare passion and real physical exertion.
Still, Post-Nothing was no warning for their second album, Celebration Rock -- a virtual highlight reel of classic rock tics, gorged on blood, sweat, and beers. It’s the band’s Great Leap Forward -- like from Bleach to Nevermind or The Bends to OK Computer. (Japandroids never made anything as spotty as Pablo Honey.) With an expanded lyrical palette that was capital “R” Romantic, Celebration Rock was full of music which had the intensity of a life and death struggle and an optimistic spirit that made the listener feel like anything is possible. Even its surrendered closer, “Continuous Thunder”, gives passion to measured expectations: “Oh, and if I had all the answers / And you had the body you wanted / Would we love with a legendary fire?” It’s a rare moment of apprehension in an album that’s full of go-for-broke, living-in-the-moment maximalism. This kind of introspection runs throughout Japandroids' third album Near to the Wild Heart of Life.
As we've seen, the title can be used as a shorthand for listeners to predict what a Japandroids album will sound like. The phrase of Near to the Wild Heart of Life not only signals verbosity -- the album features some of the band’s most poetic and thoroughly constructed lyrics -- but also its central subject matter: the chase after life’s passions and the effect it has on our spirit.
The scene-setting opener “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” details the protagonist's journey of leaving his hometown in three verses. In the first, he’s prompted by his best friend, he says goodbye to the regulars at the local bar in the second, and has a passionate dream in the third in which he sings to “You”. This “You” figures largely over Wild Heart -- the press materials for the album say that the album forms a loose narrative, although there isn't a conventional story here. Instead, the songs create a suite when taken together that detail the push and pull that one feels when they’re out chasing their dreams yet still yearn for love and domesticity that centers our lives.
The title track is followed by the heartland rock (by way of R.E.M. and the Replacements) of “North East South West” which is essentially a giddy tour-itinerary through the USA supplemented by shoutouts to the band’s hometown Vancouver. Aching with excitement and reservation at the prospect of new love, “True Love and a Free Life of Will” punctuates the wandering spirit of the first two songs by grounding the journey firmly in the realm of the interpersonal: “Baby, be the beast and free what burdens me / And I’ll love you ‘cause you’ll love me.” Remember, a “wild heart” doesn’t just go out searching, but also loves intensely. It’s a surprising turn for a band that once seemed perpetually (and happily) stuck adolescence. With shoegaze guitars and a muted, effected vocal that repeats and refines a chorus for two and a half minutes, building like a miniature of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets”, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” resolves the first side of the record with hymn-like sincerity. You think it's a happy ending until the album’s biggest departure, “Arc of Bar”, starts the second side.
“Arc of Bar”, an epic, synth-driven, seven-and-a-half-minute monster, is Japandroids’ “Hotel California” by way of Rush. Puncturing the ease that “I’m Sorry” created, “Arc of Bar” throws us into a negative image of the record’s first half, detailing the uneasy hedonism of the road: “And the sun is like an omen / Goading me to the Gospel / But I got no plans at all / Except to drink as soon as possible.” Japandroids previously treated losing self-control as a cathartic act, but here, older and maybe wiser, they see the pitfalls it presents.
Both “Midnight to Morning” and “No Known Drink Or Drug” act as a salve to “Arc of Bar”’s relapse. “Midnight to Morning”, with its jangly guitar, ascending melody, and blissful chorus, features the phrase “bring me back home to you" repeating like a mantra throughout. And then we're brought to the beautiful, sober resolution of “No Known Drink or Drug”, which is as powerfully direct as anything on Celebration Rock but, unlike songs on that record, finds its catharsis in another person: “No known drink or drug/Could ever hold a candle to your love.”
The tremendous closer, “In a Body Like a Grave”, moves out from the personal realm into a larger meditation on life itself. After detailing the various ways that life can get you down -- love scarring your heart, work sapping your soul -- singer Brian King finds optimism with seemingly overwrought lines like “there’s heaven in the hellest of holes”, “a drink for the body is a dream for the soul”, and “Love so hard that time stands still.” But, in the world of Japandroids, there is no such thing as cliche: there is only impassioned truth. In an album that’s constantly about forward motion -- whether it be touring through North America or mapping the landscape of the heart -- “In a Body Like a Grave” tells us that, no matter what, we must keep going. That we must keep trying.
Previously Japandroids’ music made you forget your troubles with cathartic release and simple optimism. The necessary maturity that the band needed to progress from Celebration Rock to this album is the same we need to navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Now, even in the face of life’s measured expectations, they’re still inspiring. This is the secret of Japandroids charm: they’re able to make your humanity feel herculean. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life conjures the same humanist swoon that runs through everything from the Who and Bruce Springsteen to Sufjan Stevens and Explosions in the Sky. Every moment on the record feels like life and death -- and that’s because life itself is life and death.