When the world sucks life out of you, music pushes life back into you. Usually it’s not music about life being sucked out of you that does the trick, but back in 2009, Japandroids proved that to be possible. The Vancouver duo figured out how to merge Thin Lizzy gaudiness with the callous heat of punk. When Post-Nothing came out, “Young Hearts Spark Fire” was a rally cry to stand back up, and when Celebration Rock appeared three years later, “The House That Heaven Built” did the same. Singer-guitarist Brian King was constantly one bulbous neck vein away from vocal damage. Drummer David Prowse grew blisters on his thumb with each song. Japandroids wanted to revive the mottos of ‘70s rock acts with the spiteful fury of ‘80s punk. So they did — and well enough to revive those who thought rock died.
It’s been five years of waiting for a new Japandroids album. The two wrote Near To The Wild Heart Of Life over the course of 2014 and 2015, hiding from the press and, it seems, hiding from their past selves. Though it was recorded by Jesse Gander, the man who handled their last two albums, the record sounds polished in a way their past works hadn’t. It’s eight songs long once again, but none of them are covers (We see you, Thin Lizzy and The Gun Club). It seems Japandroids sought out a new way of writing, and when a band takes risks, they run the chance of losing their heart. At various points throughout, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life seems victim of exactly that.
Their third album tries to rejuvenate a love for the mawkishness, and, for the most part, they’re successful. On Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, Japandroids pick up where they left off, urging listeners to grab their friends and yell lyrics back in their face. The album’s title-track is a subtle anthem that takes several listens to reveal its strengths despite its straightforward arrangements. It’s the way those vocals echo. Japandroids know how to channel their inner Tom Petty minus the timestamp. Then comes “No Known Drink or Drug”, another song written for dreamers who find themselves motivated when under the influence of Molson Canadian, ripe with its fair share of “Na na na’s” and “Oooh’s” that, somehow, empower listeners to take action.
(Cover Story: Losing My Religion: The Demise of Rock and Roll)
With past records, Japandroids dressed that stylistic cheese in endearing, almost blissful delivery. On Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, King still etches memorable imagery — a bartender rounding the countertop to smooch him farewell, living for the moment of wedlock, helping the devil steal Christ off the cross in exchange for love returned — into verses, but they’re bookended by one-liners that become sappy in their simplicity. Not every line has to be good. Those highlighted in a chorus, however, should be. The majority of Japandroids’ lyrics are elementary at best: “I used to be good/ But now I’m bad,” “I’ll love you/ if you love me,” “I’m sorry for not finding you sooner/ I was looking for you all my life.” There’s a place for simplicity of that level. It’s why poptimism exists, why formulaic songs chart on the radio for months in a row, and why bar anthems encourage people to chug a beer with their buds. But here, those words hang like a middle schooler’s attempt to mimic songwriting formulas. The cheese is too low-fat to offer lasting flavor.
Japandroids took their time on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life for a reason. The album feels cohesive, which is always good, but they lost their raucous style in the process. Prowse seems the most at fault, or perhaps the most impacted. His drumming falls into hyper-rhythmic patterns intent on keeping the beat but not much else, where furious drum rolls and pummeling notes become a style of the past. On songs like “North East South West”, his drumming turns into a metronome for King’s sprawling guitar dreams, or rather his blatant pining for Billy Joel songwriting. Arguably the true heartbeat of the band now finds itself buried beneath overproduced vocal chants and simple strumming, an entree-sized sound reduced to a mere garnish. But Prowse still adds his flair where he can, like on the uneven beat of “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”.
After all, when Japandroids push themselves, they’re captivating. That almost happens with seven-minute sprawler “Arc of Bar”, complete with slippery electronics and slightly-overblown synths, but the song never justifies its runtime. The punk energy of Post-Nothing is a thing of the past. Now, Japandroids find their rhythm at a notch slower than fans are used to. It’s songs like “In a Body Like a Grave” and “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” that prompt singalongs where you can catch your breath. Perhaps that’s good enough. After nearly a five-year wait, Japandroids could have written a record with more wind beneath its wings, but the pace of Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is consumable enough to warrant repeat listens. It just won’t be a record that saves you when you need it to.
Essential Tracks: “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”, “No Known Drink or Drug”