Think of being young, and summer likely comes to mind. It’s a classic trope of American youth that our summers were full of wild rides, big parties, and love affairs. We jumped in the pool fully clothed and smoked cigarettes outside the show, soaked in sweat, bruised from the pit. Summer tempts us to be that kid again, 17 and without responsibilities, brimming with hopes and passions.
We got a taste of that kid’s youthful ambitions on the Japandroids’ debut, 2009’s Post-Nothing, and appropriately we find him grown up a bit on their sophomore effort, Celebration Rock. Un-ironically titled and boldly optimistic, here Japandroids burn through an intense 35 minutes of scorching garage rock that rips into life, shot through with passion and loss.
Celebration Rock opens with fireworks, that eternal symbol of both summer and of sky-bound wonder, before guitar fuzz enters on “The Nights of Wine and Roses”. Here it still seems a lot like Post-Nothing, but Brian King’s vocals rip the sound wide open, the lyrics a marching cry for the young and confused: “We down our drinks in a funnel of friends/ And we burn our blends right down to the ends/ We don’t cry for those nights to arrive/ We yell like hell to the heavens.”
And this is about when you realize that Japandroids have accomplished a rare feat. They have built upon a decent debut, intensified and kept all the best parts while trimming the fat, and their follow-up is a true thing of beauty. They’ve retained the energy that pulses below the surface of the best tracks on Post-Nothing and infused it with more focus. Where Post-Nothing melts into a hazy dream, Celebration Rock does exactly what it claims to do—it burns on and on like the best sort of party.
But none of this would have an impact if it wasn’t earnest. In a culture saturated with irony, Japandroids lay their hearts on the line and it works. Their choruses are packed with heartfelt “whoa-oh-oh”s and the sort of percussion that’s guaranteed to make drummer David Prowse sweat all over his kit as he sings backup. The vocals are raw and sound stripped from a gritty rock show that you didn’t miss because it sounds as if it’s happening right in your headphones. On “Fire’s Highway”, King’s voice strains almost to the breaking point on the line “one night to have and to hold,” and he nearly breaks your heart in the process.
These are the same rowdy kids we saw in Post-Nothing, but they’re no longer just trying to “french kiss some French girls.” In “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, they told us to “keep tomorrow/ after tonight we’re not gonna need it,” but the narrator on Celebration Rock has learned some harder lessons. We’re still at the party, but things have shifted, and the perspective here is wiser. “Death has no respect for love/ and youth no respect for me,” King wails at the end of “Adrenaline Nightshift”. He mourns his innocence on “Younger Us”: “Give me that naked new skin rush/ give me younger us.”
Nowhere are the ideas of loss and recovery more clear than on ripping single “The House That Heaven Built”. The album’s climax runs hot and fast with a chorus that pays tribute to both the loss of a lover and the inevitable reality that life must go on: “When they love you (and they will)/ tell them all they’ll love in my shadow/ and if they try to slow you down/ tell them all to go to hell.” The lyrics, combined with King’s wide-open delivery, wrench the sore spot that comes after a breakup. He remembers the good times (“blush of our bodies in the heat of the night”) but also faces reality (“but you’re not mine to die for anymore/ so I must live”)–the very definition of growing up.
The frantic pace can only be sustained for so long, and the denouement arrives on closer “Continuous Thunder”, which runs slower as a point of relief. “If I had all of the answers/ and you had the body you wanted/ would we love with a legendary fire?” King asks gently. We’ve come through the fire and the intensity to a place of reflection. The song doesn’t answer this question but lets it hang, the process of growth still ongoing.
At the very end, the guitars dissolve into fireworks again, like the aforementioned thunder but also reminiscent of the frantic, passionate Jack Kerouac, whose alter ego in On the Road famously rhapsodizes that he loves people who “burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everyone goes ‘Aww!’” So too does Celebration Rock burn and burn, faster and harder, all the way through to the delirious end, a blur of an album that somehow helps you see more clearly. If you listen to it close and hard enough, you’ll be pleasantly exhausted by the end—like the end of a hard-living, hard-loving summer day — fireworks included.
Essential Tracks: “The House That Heaven Built”, “The Nights of Wine and Roses”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”, and “Continuous Thunder”
Feature artwork by Dmitri Jackson.