Reading the titles of Canadian indie rock duo Japandroids’ albums gives you a fairly good sense of what they’re all about. Their 2009 debut Post-Nothing suggests a band lacking a grand vision of what they’re supposed to be, bucking subgenre designations like “post-punk” and “post-rock” in the process. More descriptive is the band’s 2012 sophomore album Celebration Rock, a title that perfectly summarizes the band’s sound. To date, all of their songs have had the same positive energy, bristling with explosive guitar riffs, pounding drums, shout-along lyrics about drinking, girls, and embracing your youth, and enough backing “whoa-oh-oh’s” to bring you back to your skate punk days. This all may sound juvenile, but even the most cynical hipster can’t help but feel pumped up when frontman Brian King belts out “it’s a lifeless life with no fixed address to give/but you’re not mine to die for anymore, so I must live” on “The House That Heaven Built.”
At first glance, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a comfortable reassurance that Japandroids haven’t changed much over these past five years since their second album. For starters, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a very Japandroids-esque album title that suggests you’re going to hear more of their energetic “celebration rock.” This is confirmed by the opening title track, which is full of power chords, drummer David Prowse’s near-constant drumrolls, and backing vocals of “whoa-oh” during the chorus. Elsewhere, “True Love And a Free Life of Free Will” has a tempo similar to Celebration Rock’s “Continuous Thunder,” and the brief “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” has a fuzzy, lo-fi quality that’s strongly reminiscent of Post-Nothing’s production. And in case you thought that being five years older would lessen their lyrical references: youth, aging, and dying, lines like “age is a traitor” and “work will sap the soul” on “In a Body Like a Grave” show that their obsession to living life to the fullest has only intensified, carrying the torch of previous album refrains like “we used to dream, now we worry about dying” and “give me younger us.” Near to the Wild Heart of Life even shares an eight-track length just like Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock.
Yet for all these more superficial similarities, a more in-depth look at Near to the Wild Heart of Life reveals significant differences from its predecessors. For starters, it has a noticeably cleaner production quality than Celebration Rock, and is leagues beyond Post-Nothing’s general lo-fi aesthetic. This means that King’s vocals and riffs sound a little less raw this time around, particularly on tracks like “Midnight to Morning” and “In a Body Like a Grave.” Near to the Wild Heart of Life isn’t all constant power chords and chaotic drumming either, and several tracks show the band trying to step out of the mold created by earlier releases. Acoustic guitar strumming can be heard on “North South East West” and “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will,” a new addition to the band’s repertoire. This minor change pales in comparison to the album’s centerpiece though, “Arc of Bar.” At nearly seven and a half minutes, it’s not only the longest Japandroids track to date, but also features prominent synthesizer, has enough distortion to give it a vague shoegaze feel, and lacks any sort of chorus beyond a chant of “yeah.” It’s like nothing the band has done before, and solidifies Near to the Wild Heart of Life as a progression, not a rehashing.
For all of the new and old charm on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids’ lyrics remain their stumbling block. Yes, the band were never exactly bards to begin with, and one of their earlier songs has the lyric “must get to France so we can French kiss some French girls,” but these past lines were so over-the-top and fitting of their party boy aesthetic that you knew they were tongue-in-cheek. Now, they seem to have issues reconciling their more mature sound with more mature lyrics. For instance, the title track is a fairly autobiographical tale of King pursuing his rockstar dreams, wanting “to make some ears ring from the sound of my singing, baby.” If this weren’t enough, he wants us to know “I left my home for all I had, I used to be good but now I’m bad.” Elsewhere, the acoustic guitar on “North South East West” combines with geographical namechecking verses like “America made a mess of me, when I messed with Texas and Tennessee” to make it prime beer commercial material. And while the band’s passion with embracing youthfulness is expected, lines like “love so hard that time stands still” and “gather the gang and make that night” are only marginally better than “dance like no one’s watching” or “YOLO.” Instead, the band seems to be at their least awkward when they’re most earnest, like when they sing “I’m sorry for not finding you sooner, I’ve been looking for you my whole life” or “no known drink, no known drug, could ever hold a candle to your love.”
Despite their previous wholehearted embrace of partying and rocking out, it seemed inevitable that Japandroids would at some point have to tone things down a notch. It’s still a somewhat sobering realization though, especially when you hear King’s vocals leaning more heavily on singing than shouting, notice that the “whoa-oh’s” quickly drop off after the first couple tracks, and sense that the highest volume-pushing highs are slightly lower this time around. That said, they seem to have only dialed things back from eleven to ten, and there’s still plenty of classic Japandroids to keep you pumped up throughout the album. Where these elements are pared back, the band makes some welcome new changes to their sound. In this way, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is both familiar and ambitious, and most importantly is a very welcome addition to the band’s catalogue.