Note: This review was originally published on the Berkeley BSide, over here.
Vancouver garage rock duo Japandroids have made a name for themselves as the best guitar/drums act since the late White Stripes. Amassing heaps of critical praise following their 2009 commercial debut Post-Nothing, their 2012 sophomore effort, Celebration Rock, was the rare guitar album that managed to sound both fresh and familiar, abrasive yet catchy, and feel emotional despite riding almost entirely on positive emotions. Where Post-Nothing featured minimalist lyrical refrains about young lust and escapism repeated ad nauseam, Celebration Rock pulled lyrics from the exclamations of the band’s fans at a show or from drunken statements of validation on the best night out ever. Crucially, neither of these albums felt corny; rather, they felt incredibly authentic, the conveying of blunt testosterone-fueled emotions through the most efficient means possible.
Five years later, the duo’s third LP, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, is not only corny, but downright cringey. Guitarist and vocalist Brian King has never really been a great lyricist, but his words survived on their honesty and the emotion he put into singing them. After eight years as a successful rock band, it appears that Japandroids is still just as committed to delivering hedonistic, celebratory vibes through their rock music; but where once anyone who ever had a crush or got way too crossfaded with no consequences could resonate, now it appears you have to be a kick-ass rock band to empathize with King’s lyrics.
But the lyric sheet is shudder inducing. Right from the opening title track, King proves that he hasn’t stifled more nuanced poetry for the sake of resonant simplicity, but rather that he is simply incapable of translating his euphoria in any vaguely subtle way. Describing his last night at a bar before setting off on tour, King sings, “She kissed me like a chorus, said “Give ‘em hell for us’ / And last drink of the night, last night in town / Baby, this one is on the house” before launching into a chorus of “And it got me all fired up! To go far away!” So this is a song for all the guys who get action from hot bartenders and then get amped to go be rock stars? What happened to the collective “We down our drinks in a funnel of friends” or the youthful immediacy of “Give me that night you were already in bed / said ‘fuck it’ and got up to drink with me instead”?Sonically, Wild Heart is neither a vast departure from previous Japandroids releases nor is it much of a let down. The production immediately strikes as slicker and more carefully arranged than on previous Japandroids releases. Textured guitar overdubs, subtle synthesizers, a consistent but not abusive use of delay is on display. Basically, the record sounds exactly like what you’d expect on the third release from a rock duo that came from humble lo-fi origins. There is an uptick in chorused “Woah!” and “Yeah!” harmonies, there is a song that’s essentially a drifting shoegaze interlude, there are acoustic guitars. There is more. I can’t fault the band for wanting to evolve their sound (the aforementioned White Stripes walked a very similar arc), and the expanded arrangements don’t sound forced. Notably, drummer David Prowse’s energetic crashes and fills have never sounded better or more inventive. So no, from a tunes standpoint, Near to the Wild Heart of Lifedoesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t really excite, but it’s not a cause for concern.
The band has stated that their favorite song on the record, and the album’s “centerpiece,” is the seven and a half minute “Arc of Bar,” which they compare, hilariously, to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” I’ve listened to this song repeatedly and thoroughly. It’s about going out to a bar, drinking and thinking about getting laid. There is no insightful commentary. There are no clever turns of phrase (unless you count referring to men as “Jacks” and women as “Queens”). There are repeated references to mosquitoes. The song is seven and a half minutes and never budges past the same two chord progression, adding a synth every eight bars or so and a singalong chorus of “Yeahhhh” between each verse that’s so lazy and tired it’s impressive.Things go from bad to worse on “North East South West”, a song about touring that rides off the singular idea of “boy it sure is fun to travel all over the country!” and drops such face-palming lines as “Man, America made a mess of me / When I messed with Texas and Tennessee” and “And no matter how much I fan the flames / Canada always answers when I call her name” among numerous others. And on the following “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will,” King offers the vacant sentiment “I’ll love you if you love me.” What? You’re the biggest garage rock band out there and you’ve got this shit on your record?
The album’s last three tracks offer a bit more variety but don’t especially entice, and are given the same trivial lyrical treatment that encapsulates the record. It’s obvious that King has graduated from his days of “quitting girls” and has since found someone whom he feels deserves the focus of four of these songs, though can’t come up with anything more romantic than “And no known drink / No known drug /Could ever hold a candle to your love.” The closing “In a Body Like a Grave” is pulled from the same well of unchallenging “us against the world” determinism as pretty much every Bon Jovi song, and melodically fits pretty snugly within that unfortunate canon as well.
The biggest counter argument to this assessment is that you don’t listen to Japandroids for the lyrics, and that they’re still a big, exciting, passionate rock band giving their all and making exciting music. I’d counter by saying that (A) Celebration Rock contains some of my favorite lyrical moments from the decade and that they are an absolutely essential component of that album, and that (B) there are plenty of great rock bands (Car Seat Headrest, Hop Along, Ought, Mitski, Waxahatchee, Japanese Breakfast, Titus Andronicus, Modern Baseball, Parquet Courts, White Lung, Courtney Barnett, and The Twilight Sad just to name a few) that don’t have to compromise lyrical integrity to make exciting, innovative rock music. I would still see the fuck out of a Japandroids concert on this tour, as a raucous, live setting is the perfect fit for their brand of high energy rock, but as far as a studio LP goes, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is fine at best and embarrassing at worst. To put it in King’s own words in what is perhaps unfortunately the most apt lyric on the record: “I used to be good but now I’m baaaaad!”