Album Review: Japandroids: Near to the Wild Heart of Life (2017)

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Japandroids are one of the most focussed rock bands. Over 8 years and 3 albums they have peddled the same schtick: the duo thrash out on the guitar (Brian King) and drums (David Prowse) whilst shouting at each other, as if across a football pitch, about their life as a band on the road. Sometimes with melody.

This consistency is anathema to many music critics, who invariably expect sonic and thematic progression from bands à la Wilco or Radiohead. Forward motion is the way of the biz, and if you can’t keep up, drop out. So sayeth Pitchfork and their ilk, and though I do appreciate the excitement of an artist trying something new, I think this approach ignores some good records that don’t necessarily push the envelope but are well-made and give music junkies the adrenalin buzz they crave.

I find it pretty amusing that Japandroids have taken half a decade off in order to produce an album that focuses on very much the same sex, booze n’ touring adventures as the last one, the much-celebrated Celebration Rock, and I still think the music makes it all valid. You can feel the thrill of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. The lads have added some sheen to the production, notably in the acoustic guitars and synths on the 7-minute ‘Arc of Bar’, but its wild heart is, as ever, in the guitar-and-drums blitzkrieg assault. Each tries to bash it out louder than the other on their respective instrument, like hyper-competitive toddlers, until the chanted ‘oh!’, ‘na!’ or ‘yeah!’ of a chorus brings them together with a rowdy crash of momentum. On the third album this madcap formula still works, still generates excitement, even if the energy now comes from late 30-somethings.

Coming-of-age supposedly brings maturity, and Japandroids hint at it by referencing coming-of-age classic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the title Near to the Wild Heart of Life. But the truth is that they had already reached maturity on their 2009 debut Post-Nothing, which began with ‘The Boys Are Leaving Town’ and contrasted that youthful promise of escape with the disillusioned chant of ‘Will we find our way back home?/I don’t know’. Songs of youth, songs of experience? They managed both at once. Clearly they learnt this trick from Bruce Springsteen, whose yearning for the open road of America and contradictorily the retreat of his own hometown has echoed throughout a fascinating career. Japandroids are not nearly as passionate, clever or funny as The Boss, but you can still see this conflicted fascination play out on their latest album: ‘I pray those yellow lines on the I-5/Bring me back home to you’ they sing on ‘Midnight to Morning’, the freedom of the road only leading their minds back home to certain loved ones.

So they explore the emotional limits of touring in a rock band, whilst never denying the stroke of liberty it has provided them with. ‘Criss-crossing the continent all aglow’ in ‘North East South West’, they are Canadian boys thrilling to traversing the American terrain – and, it is implied, its women. Yet they also recognise the exhilaration of monogamy: ‘No known drink/No known drug/Could ever hold a handle to your love’ they coo towards the end on, not coincidentally, the most musically impassioned track.

They want it both ways it seems, and they always have done: a rock n’ roll and a stable life. This explains both the 5 year break, allowing for both members to become somewhat domesticated, and the continued stadium rock euphoria of their music. Stick your hands in the air, like you really do care.

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