Music Reviews
Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Japandroids Near to the Wild Heart of Life

(Anti-) Rating - 7/10

Japandroids make music to feel alive to. It’s genuine and timeless, songs with big-sounding intentions that romanticize on that form of glorious surrender best epitomized in classic rock’s past. The Vancouver duo like to express things clearly and directly, and simplicity is their strength. The branding behind it is also important: drummer David Prowse is all raw talent and no gimmick, a fierce and quick percussionist who dresses for comfort; meanwhile, singer/guitarist Brian King is stylish and passionate, a rock classicist with a baby face who likes his leather jackets, and when he’s feeling like a showman, rolls up his sleeves like working-class Bruce Springsteen. But never is it meant to overshadow the tunes, and boy would it be sacrilege if they fail to just “feel” every single living moment.

It all sounds intense, but if it weren’t then they wouldn't be doing it right. Japandroids sweat every single little dramatic touch with a zealousness that can’t be faked, and there’s no question that rock music lives with them and within them. They have defenders that are both fierce and passionate, their ideal base being the current class of rock critics, late thirty-going-on-forty nostalgics who both scorn and eulogize the bygone theatrics of life-changing stadium rock. But they are also greatly responsible for bringing lo-fi back into the conversation in the late 2000’s. And while most of that comeback’s most notable alumni have gone back to their more niche audiences, from No Age to Wavves, Japandroids have maintained their relevance by smartly retreating instead of over saturating their presence. It even became something of a guessing game to wonder about their four years of silence, a calculated disappearing act that, more than anything, really meant that they needed to experience the everyday trials of life and let the songs find them.

How Japandroids managed to bear the responsibility of rock saviors, though, has to do more with how they retain certain ideals that counter those of what’s usually perceived as popular rock music. Mainstream chart rock isn’t as dependable anymore, seeing as its major proponents cater to a particular hybridization of pop songcraft that only resembles rock in theory and not in practice. So if you can’t rely on them, then why not shift the attention over to a duo that, regardless of their raw approach to classic rock, otherwise still retains a very indie rock-centered aesthetic. But Japandroids are up to the task, and in Near to the Wild Heart of Life, they want to pursue their own greatness with anthems that continue to embrace the importance of keeping rock alive.

Japandroids allowed themselves the proper time to outgrow the more tender reminiscences of Celebration Rock, a more sweeping effort that boasted thunderous riffs and catchy hooks with a highly likable presentation. They also know how to start an album just right: the blistering title track is highly reminiscent of that album’s unvarnished immediacy, where King once again makes as many dull comparisons to the word “fire” as Bono does to the word “love”. But King is a smart guy who like to emphasize his modesty, so instead of obviously referencing the likes of James Joyce, he instead bases it on a grown man’s continuous rite of passage. Because there is a great significance to dreaming big, and there’s no need to intellectualize it. It also exposes the duo’s nagging tendency to clasp onto burned-out cliches and tired rock tropes: on the painfully unimaginative, but still kind of expected North East South West, you can already imagine a day on the road-style music video where King writes on his notepad about how much he misses his hometown (“Toronto I’m trusting you to cut the ‘caine / ‘Cause I’m saving Vancouver for a rainy day”) while he engages on laughter and merriment with the people he meets while traveling the heartland.

So Japandroids have finally reached a point in their careers where they’re perfectly content in embracing the average, but there’s still a good amount of reflection found on Near to the Wild Heart... to follow them on their long journey. True Love and a Free Life of Free Will is essentially a love song that internalizes on what’s to come while equally welcoming those small life events that bring pure euphoria. The duo slows things down a notch by introducing an electro-acoustic format that’s less common for them (they also incorporate this on North East South West), with an emotional frankness that surprisingly echoes the more vulnerable side of hard rockers like Axl Rose. It paves the way for I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner), a more optimistic child to the Replacements' Answering Machine, where a sole King confesses his true love while solo guitar-fuzz pulsates with a powerful yet nevertheless gentle force.

There’s a narrative on Near to the Wild Heart… that increasingly turns despondent after the highs its first half provides, which in a way plays as a more ponderous precursor to the late-night abandon of Celebration Rock. This is also where some of the energy they usually bring to the fore is unusually absent, like on No Known Drink or Drug: it builds into a straightforward build that fails to spark, and not even its “sha na na na na” chorus can save it, even when he admits that he’s “Livin’ like a Holy Roller.” Like many of the choruses on Near to the Wild Heart…, it just tends to fade away without the same liveliness of tracks like Younger Us and Adrenaline Nightshift. This may be the moment in the album where exhaustion begins to kick in for King. But even if Japandroids take some new songwriting chances, repositioning themselves toward a direction that could understandably turn off some, it’s unfortunate that what we get is the meandering Arc of Bar. As immediately as it begins, with its acerbic synths and sustained chord, you get a hunch that they’re aiming for the kind of epic statement that crumples too many indulgent ideas at once, yet the final result ultimately doesn’t amount to much.

For every chance they take, there’s still a rousing anthem like Midnight to Morning that checks off all the boxes of what makes a great Japandroids song. So it’s not to say that the duo has completely wandered off treacherous waters, not to mention that it also aptly summarizes what it means to make necessary adjustments when being on the road. The opportunities pure pleasure provides now have to be reconsidered, and concerns that weren't addressed, and better left ignored, are suddenly at stake. Certain expectations and compromises have to be fulfilled, and loving relationships need to be fostered. Near to the Wild Heart… is about rethinking the pursuit of personal independence, and discovering there’s other needs that come about other than just rocking out night after night. It’s an occasionally uplifting, but mainly standard, declaration that suggests they’re currently experiencing a transitional phase as songwriters.