Someone should remind Brian King and David Prowse that rock is a genre long dead and buried. The Canadian duo, sole members of Japandroids, insist on keeping the quixotic dream alive. Contrary to modern trends, their wide-eyed, Manichaean guitar anthems crackle with joy and, most of all, life.
Clapping fireworks bookended their magnificent sophomore LP Celebration Rock (2012); gunpowder booms double-underlined its titular statement. Those songs, in turn, rocketed upward and blasted fiery displays. And yet, with its chugging forward thrust, its unceasing gallop, the album often battered the listener. After our fists pumped, over and over again, across a brief runtime, some of us needed a breather. “The House That Heaven Built”, a perfect single placed late in the sequence, offered an apt climax. It also marked a logical conclusion for Japandroids as a laser-focused project.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life, their terrific third record, downshifts from overdrive and widens the sonic aperture. Assured post-punk experiments now splay beside Japandroids’ signature, freewheeling shambles. The fuzz remains, but it’s manicured, like a purposeful approximation of bedhead. Much has been made with regard to the addition of synths, acoustic guitars, and (something like) balladry to the mix. And it’s true: Near to the Wild Heart of Life offers textures that broaden the straight garage punk of their first two albums. In an interview with Pitchfork, King likened Celebration Rock to a party soundtrack. “Great rock ‘n’ roll albums,” like The Velvet Underground and Nico, on the other hand, “work anytime because there’s a little something for everyone.”
As for the gist of that particular analogy, I say: well, sort of. Near to the Wild Heart of Life represents, at once, a natural transition from, and a continuation of, Celebration Rock. A radical shift, this is not. It doesn’t match the leap Elephant took away from White Blood Cells (or how the tremendous Get Behind Me Satan pivoted from Elephant). (The White Stripes, another two person garage-rock combo, being the gold standard here.) Yes, included is a seven-minute-plus dance-rock extravaganza (the fabulous “Arc of Bar”). And a bouncy, strummy ode to homesickness (“Midnight to Morning”). And a sludgy, mid-tempo bit of metaphysical stock-taking (“True Love and a Free Life of Free Will”). And, unfortunately, a hazy, shoegazing misfire (“I’m Sorry (for Not Finding You Sooner)”). Still, the band’s First Principles — biblical and boozy references, wordless background exclamations, lyrics that blaze with optimism — survive this minor (if, to some, jarring) evolution.
The transition can at times be awkward, as with the aforementioned duet of “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” and “I’m Sorry (for Not Finding You Sooner)”. It doesn’t help that the two weakest tracks on an eight-song album follow each other so early on, and after the breathless hurry of Near to the Wild Heart of Life’s incredible title number and the soaring travelogue “North East South West”. But the record immediately rights itself with “Arc of Bar”, and swaggers onward with confidence and verve to its phenomenal conclusion.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life deviates furthest from the Japandroids blueprint with this menacing centerpiece. King and Prowse are masters of the big, the open, the blown-out. “Arc of Bar” is instead sweaty, claustrophobic, sexy even. Its gaze isn’t fixed on open expanses, but toward a dim dancefloor. A repeated synth motif, such a break from the past, is a mere flourish compared to the song’s beguiling, syncopated rhythms. Its lyrics trade literalism for the Dylanesque (“And for her love, I would help the devil/ To steal Christ right off the cross”). No surprise, then, that the most exciting song on the album is also its most divisive.
The remainder of Near to the Wild Heart of Life steers back toward the familiar with the plaintive wail of “Midnight to Morning”, the raucous buzz of “No Known Drink or Drug”, the glorious finale of “In a Body Like a Grave”. No matter how successful an individual composition is, though, each of these songs stand atop a sturdy foundation of life-affirming lyrics and towering melodies. Few bands can deliver music so uncynical, so exultant, and (yes) so hummable without skidding into schlock. Openhearted singalongs aren’t exactly fashionable, but they can be restorative, now more than ever. The luminous Near to the Wild Heart of Life arrives as an imperfect, if sorely needed, import from the Great White North. Japandroids return, proud Canadians, to provide the right medicine at a dark time. A MINUS