Premature Evaluation: Japandroids Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
You have to feel for Japandroids. For their second album, they achieved such a perfect distillation of their sound, a rock record so nourishing and exciting and fun, that it was hard to imagine that they’d ever hit those heights again. So they take that follow-up about as seriously as they can. They took nearly five years to craft its eight songs, and they put a ton of work into making an album that bursts with romance and exhilaration. Right now, they’re coming out with an ode to falling in love and living on the road and throwing caution to the wind and getting drunk with your friends. They’re waxing rhapsodic about nights at the bar and nights in bed with someone you love and America, giving us an album full of joy and possibility. And then, though no fault of their own, that album is hitting the internet one day before a terrifying despot takes control of the United States federal government. Has a great record ever been so out-of-step with its cultural moment?
And let’s be clear here: Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is a great rock record. Japandroids have pulled off something exceedingly difficult: They’ve kept the roaring, simplistic sound of the first album, but they’ve found subtle ways to expand that sound, to open it up. The new album isn’t the fiery end-to-end headrush that Celebration Rock was, but honestly, how could it be? Any attempt to replicate that feeling would’ve just resulted in diminishing returns. With the new one, Japandroids have kept that same kids-down-a-desert-highway feeling, but they’ve brought in new dynamics and arrangements. They’ve slowed down that sprinting-into-the-sun momentum a bit, but they’re not trying to insist that they’re grown-ups now. Album number three is traditionally a perilous point in an artist’s career. It’s so easy to just Xerox a past album’s successful sound, or to leap headlong into heedless experimentation. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life threads the needle admirably.
This is clearly a meticulously planned-out album; they’ve considered every misstep they could’ve made and avoided just about all of them. With Wild Heart, Japandroids have taken every pain to make sure we know that they’re the same band, that they’re not getting big heads. As with the last two Japandroids album, Wild Heart has stark black-and-white picture of the two guys in the band on the cover. Like the other two, it’s eight songs long, which the band members have said is the perfect classic length for a rock record. They made the album with producer Jesse Gander, the guy who recorded the last two albums. And just like those albums, it’s full of surging riffs and big feelings and sloppy embraces of cliche. But there are just as many ways in which it’s not like those last two albums.
None of the moves that Japandroids make on Wild Heart would be considered experimental if any other band made them. It’s not like they’re bringing in Tuvan throat singers or Mellotrons or Kid Ink guest-verses. Their slow songs aren’t that slow, and their tweaks are tiny: a bit of acoustic guitar here, a touch of synth here. But those changes work wonders, and most of the album’s best moments are the ones that sound most different from what came before. “North South East West” has a half-acoustic riff that recalls the mid-period Who more than the early Who, a first for this band. The more-heartfelt-than-heartfelt closer “In A Body Like A Grave” works in folksy Springsteenisms. And best of all, the seven-minute centerpiece “Arc Of Bar,” one of the best songs that this band has ever recorded, has an icy Terminator-soundtrack synth squirming all through it, giving me visions of the glorious things that might happen if Japandroids ever decided to go full electro-rock. (They already have the band name for it, after all.)
Lyrically, the new album, like the ones that came before it, is about drunkenness and camaraderie and the excitement that can come from putting yourself out there, from trying to realize your dreams. The album-opening title track is all about taking advice from your friends (and from random bartender hookups) and summoning the courage to go out into the world. And they follow it immediately with an ode to the mythic American road: “Coast of California, the highway high / Noise, narcotics, and the New York night.” But alongside all that stuff, Brian King has found another way to embrace cliche: Judging by those lyrics, he’s fallen in love. And so many of the album’s lyrics are about a whole new kind of exhilaration, of wanting to speed back into your baby’s arms: “I’m praying those yellow lines on the I-5 bring me back home to you.”
This is fist-in-the-air music, music that’s built to soundtrack drunken escapades and ill-advised hookups and swimming-hole road trips. A whole lot of people are going to have a whole lot of fun to this album, and the album seems precision-engineered with all that fun in mind. But this is a weird time to be encountering an album built like that. This is a time of fear and anxiety and regret and resentment. It’s a time of staring at the Facebook pages of family members who voted for Trump and trying to figure out what the fuck they were thinking. It’s a time of watching TV news and just zoning out into a state of blind anger. Maybe you feel like partying right now, and if you do, that’s great for you. I don’t. I can’t. And that means I cannot get on Japandroids’ level right now. I can’t hear Near To The Wild Heart Of Life the way it should be heard. I wish I could.
Look, you’re probably sick of reading reflections on art in the Trump era. I’m sick of writing them, and the fucking era hasn’t even fucking started yet. This isn’t Japandroids’ fault; they aren’t even American, for fuck’s sake. But right now, when I listen to Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, I feel like I’m fooling myself. The album comes out on the same day as two other, equally great rock records, Allison Crutchfield’s Tourist In This Town and Priests’ Nothing Feels Natural. Those two records make room for doubt and anxiety and sadness, and those feelings are pretty much entirely absent on Japandroids’ album. Maybe that’s why I’ve found myself gravitating to them much more than I have been to Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. Celebration Rock famously ended with the sound of fireworks. The fireworks are going to look a whole lot different tomorrow.