Loud guitars, pounding drums, and raw vocals. The formula seems simple enough. For an era dominated by the breakdown of traditional song structures and instrumental construction, few bands have managed to take simple tools and craft strong, fortified compositions like Japandroids, the Canadian duo that received heaps of acclaim for 2012’s Celebration Rock, a whirlwind of a record that showed us how simple ambitious, cathartic rock could be.
All background aside, one listen to the band’s third record, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, captures the youthful passion and energy that isn’t unlike what we’ve seen before. On one side of the spectrum, the guitars are still loud, the drums still serve as a pulsing weapon, and Brian King’s vocals possess the same sort of gritty tenacity that we’ve seen before. However, this 36-minute package isn’t overwrought with old tricks, as the band’s unmistakable sound is tweaked repeatedly throughout the record, in ways that feel right in place. On the band’s third go-around, Japandroids find themselves at a crossroads, succeeding in a score of new ways, while opening up an array of doors along the way.
There could only be one Celebration Rock, and this record doesn’t liberally indulge in the cathartic “whoas” and “ohs” that defined that album. One of the major strengths of that album was the fact that the band executed nostalgic catharsis in a meaningful manner. The garage/punk core and heartland ethos continue to flow, but the means to an end is a little different this time around. It is this flexibility in execution that makes Near to the Wild Heart of Life unique, with intentions that rise to the challenge of Boys and Girls in America or American Slang in terms of capturing an established flair for feeling in an innovative and explorative manner.
“North East South West” opens with uncharacteristically clean guitar riffs, well suited for active rock radio. There are tricks of trade that are quite present on this track. King’s romantic yearning for “criss-crossing the continent all alone” is akin to “Younger Us”, while the song’s frantic pace and anthemic shouts of the cardinal directions are all pieces of the pie that we’ve grown accustomed to. While the basics stay the same, it is the new tricks that portray a real shift for the band, especially with the clean, layered production of the guitars and vocals alike. These factors that contribute to the classic rock aesthetic that the band grips with greater magnitude on this record.
This mixture of the familiar and unknown takes itself one step further on “Arc of Bar”. Opening with a driving synth riff, the images presented here are dark, painting sets of dark, sketchy imagery. Between the “hustler, whores, in room galore” to the “jokers doing the dealing”, this 7 minute sprawling take manages to “steal Christ right off the cross” in its portrayal of vice and aggression, a departure from the vaguely innocent, succinct attacks that have defined the band to this point. This song presents a drastic attempt at challenging the songwriting prowess that made the band unique. Whether this is a good thing is up for grabs, as it sacrifices the power and intensity of their songwriting style for a more patient, nuanced listen.
Patience isn’t the norm for Japandroids, and attempts to draw it out are contrasted by songs that capture the romantic energy of youth and passion in a way only this band can. “Midnight to Morning” has the same layered, higher-fi production of the other tracks on the album, but with clearly delineated shifts in the pace and dynamics between verse and chorus. Hooked to the same bottle as “The House That Heaven Built”, King sings of the person who can bring him to “leave the bottle/to its own”. The cathartic refrain of “back home to you” nestles itself between images of the I-5, combining a polished emotional tone with a loud, raw passion we’re used to seeing from the band.
It only takes so long to figure out what Near to the Wild Heart of Life aims to accomplish. Combining the terse, cathartic energy of the band’s previous work with a more open, nuanced foundation makes this record unique. The intentions are commendable and the results draw out the duo’s spectrum of songwriting in a healthy and constructive manner. With repeated listens, this intention becomes harder and harder to discern from a sense of transition, a desire to reform.
These songs still feel like Japandroids songs, but the record oscillates between well-produced pockets of catharsis and more patient affairs that directly challenge this construction. It is this back and forth that makes this record the softer spoken outing that it is. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, the band’s negotiations between their energy and their experimentation is difficult to balance in a way that makes it hard for the band to full succeed in both.
One of the hardest working bands in the industry, Japandroids has thrilled with their pristine execution of such simple tricks. With a constant barrage of sound and energy on their first two records, it is easy to understand why the band would want to channel that passion in new and interesting ways. While Near to the Wild Heart of Life manages to tread along both boundaries, it is this disparity between the two intentions that gives the record less tenacity and power compared to its predecessors. What we do get is a great record with the makings of something special, as the songs manage to show this duo playing their game in a new way, even though the new rules still need some time to flesh themselves out.
On the band’s third go-around, Japandroids find themselves at a crossroads, succeeding in a score of new ways, while opening up an array of doors along the way.