By Jamie McNamara
Japandroids’ music has a funny way of playing with nostalgia. Maybe it’s the sonic reminiscence of a rock era long since passed, or possibly the youthful, halcyon lyricism of guitarist and vocalist Brian King, but the Vancouver duo have built their name on heartfelt garage rock that constantly asks, both lyrically and sonically, for the listener to remember days gone by.
Together with drummer, and occasional woah-woaher, David Prowse, Japandroids have been pummeling the ear drums and heart cavities of fans across the world, not only earning them a reputation as one of the most consistently hard-working touring bands of the last decade, but as one of the most downright enjoyable rock acts of the last decade as well. Almost five years after the release of their last instant-classic album, 2013’s Celebration Rock, the boys return with a new album, a new label, and a new outlook on life.
Unfortunately, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, the Vancouver duo’s first album for Epitaph imprint Anti-, is a mixed-bag that often has a hard time finding a place in between the nostalgia and the future. Japandroids have fought hard to remain in a drunken, youthful glow, but they’ve inadvertently made one of the strongest reminders of nihilistic determinism. Everything good will end.
Springst-emo is dead. Long live Springst-emo.
Japandroids rose to prominence on the quality of their scrappy, guitar-drums rock-revivalism, bashing through slapdash odes of youthful exuberance, like on Celebration Rock standout “Younger Us,” singing “Remember saying things like ‘we’ll sleep when we’re dead’ / And thinking this feeling was never gonna end / Remember that night you were already in bed, Said ‘fuck it’ got up to drink with me instead!”
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is full of that same bashing dynamic, but the youthfulness is gone, replaced with vapid beer rock, and I-read-On–The–Road-in-university tales of travel and hedonism. All throughout, Near to the Wild Heart of Life sounds like it was crafted to be cut-and-pasted into countless Hockey Night in Canada highlight reels and B.C. tourism commercials. It’s never more obvious than the acoustic-guitar-anchored “North East South West,” which sounds like Arkells doing a cover of Said the Whale doing a cover of Springsteen. The song sounds like it was steeped in Canadiana to the point that it’s quite shocking how often Japandroids sound like The Trews on this album (and no, that’s not a compliment).
Unfortunately, things get a lot worse before they get much better. “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” is a dirge-y, feed-backed snoozer of a rock ballad that is processed to the point that it sounds as if Savage Garden tried to make shoegaze and failed. Luckily, the song functions as a sort of interlude at only two and a half minutes.
On any other eight-track album, that may be a complaint, but Japandroids use the next track, the seven-minute “Arc of Bar,” to make you wish they’d stuck with shorter run times. The song isn’t really that abrasive on the ears. Led by an alarmingly simple “yeaaaaah, yeaaaaah” chorus, it’s actually fairly enjoyable sonically.
Unfortunately, it’s also the song that displays some of King’s worst lyricism to date. It’s filled with clichés, making King sound like a cross between the human embodiment of the “That Guy in Your MFA” Twitter account and a tone-deaf Craig Finn. It’s filled with cringe-worthy bar patron poetry like the opening lyric, according to Genius: “Hustlers, whores, in rooms galore / A sinking city’s stink / An arc of bar, a flesh bazaar / Of diamonds, dust, and drink / The jukebox jamming, the lions lamming / The jokers doing the dealing / And queens are over jacks.”
Yet, when the lyrics aren’t this kind of flowery, Kenny Loggins fever dream, they’re over-simplified and uninspired. The lead-off title track features the lyric: “And it got me all fired up / To go far away / And make some music from the sound of my singing, baby / So I left my home / And all I had / I used to be good but now I’m bad.”
That song saves itself by being damn catchy, but its simplicity leaves nothing left to examine past face value.
While Japandroids never felt like a band that demanded intellectualism, their lyrics had heart; a youthful simplicity that recalled simpler times and fewer responsibilities. Often on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, it feels as if that simplicity has been replaced by overworked cliché.
Everywhere on this album, Japandroids embrace the aesthetic that brought them such success with Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock, but these new songs seem to lack the immediacy and free will of those previous works. Frustratingly, a lot of the tracks on this album flirt with that early quality, but instead, their near misses prove that a middling album from a great band proves to be even worse than a terrible album from a bad band.
“Midnight to Morning,” for example, is just a There is Nothing Left to Lose-era Foo Fighters song with less instruments; “No Known Drink or Drug,” sits King’s voice in the back of the mix leaving perfect space for Prowse to fill in with some ill-advised “sha-na-na-na-nahs.”
“In A Body Like A Grave” is this album’s slow-burning closer, just like “Continuous Thunder” was on Celebration Rock. Remaining consistent with the seven songs previous, it just makes you want to put on “Continuous Thunder.”
Japandroids didn’t make drastic changes to the formula on Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Sure, there are new layers that they have added into the mix, with synths and acoustic guitars finding their way into the duo’s wheelhouse, but it’s still clear something is off. The immediacy of Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock has all but disappeared, leaving in its place a Japandroids that often sound like they’re mimicking their scrappier beginnings, but leave no room for errors to arise. Instead, Japandroids sound like a more professional band, or at least a band that has been recorded more professionally.
Growing old is inevitable, but Near to the Wild Heart of Life certainly doesn’t make a strong case for it.Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life