The career arc of Japandroids is as important to the Vancouver duo’s legacy as their actual music. The band planned to disband in early 2009, but stuck together after its debut album Post Nothing received rapturous reviews from tastemaking websites such as Pitchfork. They soon cultivated a reputation as an exciting, energetic live band and their follow-up, 2012’s Celebration Rock, was heralded as one of that year’s best albums.
The band intended for their new third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, to be a radical departure from their first two records, and much of the press surrounding the record referred to the band’s inclusion of “ballads” and synthesizers. However, aside from a few tracks, most of the songs here feel like traditional Japandroids songs with slight twists on the formula.
The album’s title track is a great example of the band’s modus operandi, featuring Brian King’s howling vocals and Bob Mould-esque guitar stabs meshing perfectly with David Prowse’s powerful drumming and distinct harmonies. The song’s monstrously catchy chorus has all the anthemic qualities that fans would come to expect from a Japandroids hook, and its overall construction is solid enough to make up for a couple lyrical shortcomings. Its theme of “leaving town to follow your dreams” is a staple of loud guitar rock, but the chorus’ ending line of “I used to be good but now I’m bad” is a bit of a clunker that doesn’t really work with the rest of the song.
“North South East West” starts off a little more restrained than the usual Japandroids song, but it gains momentum around its first chorus. The song’s real treat is its hook-filled coda, which is introduced through a neat key change and takes up the last quarter of its run time. The song’s lyrics about missing a lover while traveling with a touring band also feel solid and earnest, even if they may strike as overly sentimental for listeners who are into Japandroids for first pumping anthems.
The song that best fits the pre-release hype of an “all-new all-different Japandroids” is “Arc of Bar”. The 7 ½ long epic is a swirling haze of blocky synths, shoegaze guitar bursts and four-on-the-floor drums. With Brian King’s vocal front and center, it’s not quite a stylistic 180 from Celebration Rock, but it’s definitely a stark contrast. The song is an impressive example of how a band with such an easily identifiable sound can do something so different while still maintaining their identity.
Less successful is “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will”, which is arguably the weakest cut on the record. It’s not as much of a departure as “Arc of Bar” is, but the things that separate it from a typical Japandroids song just don’t add up right. The percussion driven, partially acoustic track loses a lot of the momentum built up by the tracks that preceded it, and it doesn’t build up to a satisfactory enough end to justify that loss in energy. Additionally, the new ideas presented on the song are interesting, but it doesn’t unravel in a way that presents them well.
“Arc of Bar” aside, Near to the Wild Heart of Life’s most significant difference from Japandroids first two albums is the slower tempo found on most of the tracks. That drop in speed has a noticeable change on the band’s sound. The songs feel a little longer, the tracks seem to drag a little bit and it feels like the sense of urgency found on a song like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is missing from several cuts on the album.
Yet, that really isn’t a total negative against Near to the Wild Heart of Life. The album’s slower pace make it feel more “mature” than those first two albums; a fist-in-the-air party rock record for thirtysomethings, particularly on tracks like the power pop anthem “Midnight to Morning” with its loud-quiet dynamics and shout-along chorus that bursts straight of the speakers like a Sloan song.
While some of their urgency is lost on this record, Japandroids have lost none of their ebullience. Never once do they sound like they’re phoning it in on Near to the Wild of Life, and always, their joy in being able to make music is incredibly infectious.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a solid, rock record that although not quite up to the (admittedly high) standards Celebration Rock set, is also not a disappointment. The album is a fun experiment from a band known having such a specific aesthetic. While some of their new ideas aren’t successful, others are (particularly some of the shoegazy elements) and it will be interesting to see what elements they choose to follow up with on subsequent album