The Anniversary

Celebration Rock Turns 10

Polyvinyl
2012
Polyvinyl
2012

Imagine how we’d be talking about Celebration Rock if it was named literally anything else. If Polyvinyl label manager Seth Hubbard had it his way, that’s exactly what would be happening right now. Throughout the ongoing Polyvinyl Podcast series, nearly everyone involved in recounting the label’s 25-year history describes its brain trust as almost invariably hands-off and artist-friendly, including Japandroids. Drummer David Prowse recalls how he and guitarist/vocalist Brian King wanted to preview some rough drafts as they struggled through the writer’s block and self-doubt that had turned their second LP into an arduous, seemingly endless slog. Japandroids had made it abundantly clear throughout their relationship that they’d rather quit music altogether than commit to songs that were anything less than great, so Polyvinyl politely declined to hear the demos, trusting Japandroids’ internal quality control — that is, at least until they shared their idea for the album title.

Prowse remembers Hubbard sending the duo “a heartfelt email about how Celebration Rock was an absolutely terrible title.” Hubbard felt it sounded like the name of a U2 album, which cut against the hard-drinkin’, hard-tourin’ good ol’ boys image they cut on 2009’s Post-Nothing — “You’re going for the big, giant rock band and that’s not really who you guys are,” he explained. Fair enough; Post-Nothing was written with the presumption that no one outside of the Vancouver metro area would hear it, and any ambitions towards greater success were projected onto it after the fact. I disagree with Hubbard on one count, however — Celebration Rock sounds more like the name of an AC/DC album.

As for Japandroids not being a big, giant rock band, that’s also true. I don’t think anyone listens to Celebration Rock imagining Brian King and David Prowse signing to a major label and working with Mutt Lange, destroying hotel rooms, or filming videos where they’re passed out on a luxurious tour bus after playing hockey arenas; even though the Vancouver Canucks used “The House That Heaven Built” as entrance music, Rogers Arena’s concert lineup is typified by the likes of the Lumineers, Rod Stewart, and Shawn Mendes. What Celebration Rock does imagine is what would happen if everything we expected from U2 or AC/DC — rock music that blots out every other concern besides transcendence and salvation, or makes getting drunk and rocking out the highest possible calling — was delivered by bands that sound like Japandroids.

At this point, I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time describing what Celebration Rock actually sounds like. Critics like myself had to get more creative in 2012, whereas nowadays, I can just say “dudes rock” and be done with it — “dudes” as either an adjective and a noun, “rock” as either a verb or a noun. It’s a non-toxic masculinity, where a constant chorus of whoas, yeahs, high-fives, and bear hugs aren’t deflections from sharing deeply held emotions to friends and partners but expressions of them in their purest form — something closer to a purifying primal scream than the oversharing and self-deprecation and buzzwords that have arisen alongside the mainstreaming of therapeutic language.

“Celebration rock” was indeed coined as a ready-made genre, and while I haven’t seen a wave of explicitly Japandroids-influenced bands (or really, many at all), the term has become a useful and enduring shorthand. Whether in reviews or dashed-off tweets, it usually gets applied to bands who, like Japandroids, evoke heartland yearning even if they are from major American and Canadian cities. They have a foundation in shout-and-point punk, while tinkering with the ratio of Bruce Springsteen to Paul Westerberg in their songwriting formula. The latter continuum is more descriptive of their lyrical POV, specifically the Boss that tried to cosplay as a car wash employee or a washed Jersey barfly despite being a celebrity on the level of Madonna or Michael Jackson or Prince in the mid-’80s. And this is not the profoundly traumatized Paul Westerberg from Trouble Boys but the one whose genius and self-destructive drive were in constant conflict; the guy who somehow got booked to play Saturday Night Live and was subsequently banned for getting too drunk. In other words, these are bands who are highly (and perhaps subliminally) ambitious about being rock’s most lovable loser.

I’m thinking the Menzingers or Penske File or PUP or Pkew Pkew Pkew or Spanish Love Songs. They like their beers cold and plentiful. In their songs they don’t chase after women, but they do hopelessly pine for them or, more often, desperately hold on to the ones they know are too good for them. They’ll go to therapy and then maybe make a sarcastic song about it. They tend to be very popular amongst people who primarily write about sports for a living. Some of these bands have become far more commercially successful than Japandroids, for a number of obvious and valid reasons: They tour more consistently, they make records more often than once every five years, and they play festivals like Warped Tour and Fest that foster fanbases less fickle than the ones that typically sprung up around late-aughts Best New Music. Perhaps most importantly, they use their videos and PR and social media presence to solidify the assumption that they’re exactly what they appear to be on record — the kind of people who’d pound beers right along with you if they weren’t up on stage.

“Celebration rock” the genre really fixates on the latter. Celebration Rock the album absolutely does not. By most accounts, Japandroids are loners in the music industry, kinda standoffish if not outright antisocial. They’ve described themselves as nobodies in Vancouver’s punk scene and they did not get discovered on account of their hustle or grindset. Pitchfork editor Mark Richardson stumbled upon “Young Hearts Spark Fire” on their MySpace page, and they rode a particularly 2009 wave of buzz to an actual career. The duo was initially lumped in with critically acclaimed lo-fi garage rockers like Wavves, No Age, or Times New Viking and, later, Titus Andronicus and Cloud Nothings, but they didn’t really seem to be friends with any of them. They have a Twitter account that posts robotic notifications about upcoming projects, and its “following” count has remained at zero. It hasn’t been updated since October 2020. Whether or not they’re fans of Tom Waits’ music appears to be secondary in their rationale to sign to Anti- ahead of 2017’s Near To The Wild Heart Of Life; they saw Waits’ presence as proof that the label will work with artists who have no desire to do more press than is absolutely necessary.

This all speaks to Hubbard’s point that an album that lives up to the title of Celebration Rock is absolutely not the Japandroids we knew from Post-Nothing. “I want people to identify and relate and feel personally close to what I’m saying, but at the same time I live a life that is now very difficult for people to relate to,” King told Pitchfork in 2012. On a literal level, he’s correct. I’m guessing very few listeners had first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a band plucked from obscurity to play festivals and late night shows and be the subject of magazine cover stories when they could barely get a blurb in the local alt-weekly in 2009.

Nor could most people know what it’s like to have all of that happen and end up somehow worse off than before. Japandroids’ first tour post-Post-Nothing was canceled after King nearly died from a perforated ulcer. Having to play shows outside the Vancouver metro area for more than a dozen people for months at a time stress-tested their friendship and artistic partnership in ways that they couldn’t possibly anticipate. And they’d absolutely run Post-Nothing into the ground for another decade if they could. “The band has just spent two years traveling the world playing shows every night, which is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us, and then all of sudden we’re right back to square one,” King lamented. Prior to Post-Nothing, Prowse lived with his girlfriend and worked a steady, fulfilling day job; none of these things remained when he got back home. Now newly single, nearly broke, and homeless at the edge of 30, Prowse moved back in with parents. Imagine sitting on “The House That Heaven Built” and having to sleep on your mom’s couch.

Worse yet, in order to get back out on the road, they had to do the one thing they hated the most about being in Japandroids — set foot in a recording studio. “We have to work really, really hard to write a song we think is really good,” King admitted. “It might take a whole month to write a song that we think is good.” By 2011, they’d ostensibly made six songs in two years that were suitable for Celebration Rock. One was already released in 2010 and another was a cover of Gun Club’s “In The House Of Ivy.” (Side note: I can’t imagine being the only one who heard the original thereafter and was shocked that Japandroids had to cut out an n-word, but then again, post-punk from that era has a thing for using racial slurs and fascist imagery in the name of “transgressive” “shock value”). That averages out to way longer than one month per good song.

As a last ditch effort, Japandroids rented a house in Nashville and hoped the spirit of Music City, or at least a change of scenery, would provide enough inspiration to get Celebration Rock to a proper LP length. Undeterred by noise complaints, the duo wrote “The House That Heaven Built” and “Continuous Thunder,” the two final songs on Celebration Rock. Though the album is infamously bookended by the sound of fireworks, the mood was far more muted when King and Prowse heard the final results. The vocals of “The House That Heaven Built” are out of King’s vocal range, and he hated the way they sounded when he first heard them. He also felt the album’s overall mix didn’t hit hard enough. Prowse does not recall any high-fives being exchanged. They promised Polyvinyl one tour to honor the hard work and patience that everyone put in and that was going to be the end of it — just like with Post-Nothing.

In a roundabout way, every single thing I’ve heard about the creation of Celebration Rock underscores a common critique — that there’s something inauthentic about its unyieldingly jubilant mood, that it’s closer in spirit to Andrew W.K. than, say, “real” rock like the Replacements. I 100% agree that Celebration Rock is a work of fantasy, even fan service — King admitted that he put himself in the position of a ticket buyer when writing the lyrics, asking himself, “What would I want to scream back at me?” I obviously don’t think King and Prowse were being disingenuous or cynical with this approach. If you look at how hard it is for Japandroids to make music and how badly they want to be back on the road, why would they dwell on their failures every single night?

Indeed, nothing that happens on this record happened in a literal sense to Brian King or David Prowse. I’m not convinced it can happen to anybody, which is the whole point. “Celebration rock” bands hold up a mirror to the listener, validating and commiserating. As Titus Andronicus, a band that has been occasionally lumped into “celebration rock” very much against their own will, once sang: “You will always be a loser, and that’s OK!” People really do need to hear that sometimes.

But Celebration Rock refuses to settle for being a loser, let alone being OK with that. And this is why it’s spoken of with a religious fervor that even the most celebrated of celebration rockers can never hope to match. For all of its bluster and overstatement and astronomical stakes, King taps into something volatile and vulnerable: “I’m talking about the night you felt that way — that one time,” he explained. Just about every second of this album hits that sore spot from multiple angles — the lifelong pursuit of trying to put words to that indescribable feeling and also the fear that it really was that one time. In 2012, the Menzingers released their ecclesiastically beloved dirtbag opus On The Impossible Past, and I sometimes wondered whether they should’ve swapped album titles with Japandroids.

“There’s a particular kind of nostalgia that hits you when you know you’re too young to feel nostalgic about anything,” Tom Breihan wrote of “Younger Us” when it dropped, presumably as a one-off single, in 2010. While I can’t recall if people regularly used the term “washed” back then, it gets to what makes “Younger Us” such a painful and poignant song rather than an impotent attempt to Remember Some Times. I actually think it functions better as a prelude to Celebration Rock than the song that’s stuck between “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “The House That Heaven Built,” as it hints at the life-and-death stakes that drive Japandroids ever forward — from the very first minute, they’re gripped by a frightening desperation to make something happen. They are not going to wait for a generation’s bonfire to begin. They are not going to wait until they have the answers and you have the body you want before loving with a legendary fire. Anyone tries to slow you down? Tell ’em all to go to hell, and in fact, do that right now. I will probably go to my grave believing “You’re not mine to die for anymore/ So I must live” is the greatest rock lyric ever written; King repackages every one of your embarrassing and completely honest pleas of devotion and devastating heartbreak into seven words and then transmutes it into a resolution to not just heal, but transcend.

No one in indie rock was writing lyrics like this, though King didn’t really see himself in that tradition anyways. “People have always alluded to those extremes as a way of characterizing the most intense feelings since blues and the early days of rock,” he mused. “A blues singer won’t be like, ‘We broke up.’ He’ll say, ‘Satan stole my baby from me.'” Japandroids’ desire to invoke the elemental, Manichean worldview of the blues progeny has been nearly impossible to satisfy in the realm of self-effacing indie — witness the insufferable po-mo shtick of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Bands who otherwise try to draw on the blues’ arena-rock progeny usually have to take a play-acting, tongue-in-cheek approach (like their future Polyvinyl labelmates White Reaper), or, in the case of the Hold Steady or the Mountain Goats, an authorial distance.

The blockbuster language of Celebration Rock reminds me of what New Yorker film critic Richard Brody recently wrote about fantasy: “There’s no middle ground with fantasy because there’s no ground at all. Even a middling work of realism inevitably rests on experience, observation, and knowledge…when successful, fantasies are glorious, seemingly expanding the very nature of experience by way of speculative imagination.” No one in these songs is pulling a 9-to-5, they’re working the “Adrenaline Nightshift.” No one is hopelessly carrying the torch for the waitress at the all-night diner, or someone named Julie or Anna; they are being immolated by “a blitzkrieg love and a roman candle kiss.” No one is coming out swinging from a south Philly basement; they are blazing down fire’s highway, yelling like hell to heavens, singing out loud like continuous thunder.

This is not an album that often gets discussed in terms of craft, and the simplicity of its message tends to overshadow the true miracle of Celebration Rock — how it gets you to feel that way, while still being not all that different from the version of Japandroids that was compared to shitgaze bands three years prior. “So many of our songs feel like they’re not good enough until they are a blitzkrieg,” King boasted. “We’re like, ‘This part’s not blitzkrieg enough!’ We always need to figure out how a song can be super fucking intense the entire time. Until that happens, it’s not done.” The one song that deviates is called “Continuous Thunder” — slower and deeper than the more frequently invoked lightning, but still elemental and uncontrollable.

King’s most frequent trick involves moving a stock open chord an entire octave up the fretboard, utilizing the lowest and highest notes on the guitar. Particularly on “Adrenaline Nightshift” or the solo of “Fire’s Highway,” it’s a thrilling disorientation of negative g-forces, the combination of velocity, weightlessness, and inertia that occurs when you’re hanging upside down from a plunging roller coaster, or trying to maneuver a hydroplaning car, or the first time you took your hands off the bike handles downhill — whatever made you feel completely within your body while challenging the laws of gravity. A fellow music writer was visiting Los Angeles in 2012, and he specifically asked to hear Celebration Rock when I gave him a ride home. As a New Yorker without a driver’s license, he felt like hadn’t truly experienced the album as intended.

Not gonna lie — Celebration Rock is a shortlist candidate for my Favorite Album Of All Time, and seeing its cachet dwindle over the past decade has, at times, regrettably felt like a personal affront. Japandroids trailed only Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Fiona Apple on 2012’s Pazz And Jop list, the most acclaimed rock band in perhaps the last great year for Capital-R rock bands. Still, they weren’t reflective of any other larger musical trends at the time, and 10 years later, “two buds making carpe diem bangers” sounds more like the Chainsmokers than just about anything in the upper echelon of Big Indie. The touring cycle behind Celebration Rock ended in November 2013, and Japandroids didn’t play another show for nearly three years. When they announced Near To The Wild Heart Of Life on Halloween 2016, the Cubs were days away from winning their first World Series in 108 years and Hillary Clinton seemed like a pretty safe bet to be the United States’ first female president. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life addressed most of the qualms expressed by the few critics of Celebration Rock, adding synthesizers and acoustic guitars, greater variation in tempo, lyrics based on real things that actually happened to King and Prowse, and backup vocals by their girlfriends. What they failed to do is anticipate that it would be released one week after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

I still feel like that album was a victim of the earnest and totally understandable critical impulse in early 2017 to gauge rock music on its sociopolitical prescience and utility. And I still feel like its actual substance was the best-case scenario for “the album after Celebration Rock,” an album that couldn’t possibly be topped by doing the same exact thing. But five years later, I feel like the definitive take on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life came from the New York Times Popcast with Jon Caramanica and Dan Ozzi — two Japandroids fans of varying intensity who enjoyed the record but basically admitted that they’d rather hear more 35 more minutes of Japandroids doing nothing but whoas and yeahs than songs about their own lives. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life begins with its title track, a roman a clef origin story, and “North East South West,” a good ol’ fashioned “We’re a Canadian Band” rock ‘n roll travelog; when I relisten to them now, it hits me that Japandroids had turned into a “celebration rock” band.

Even if Near To The Wild Heart Of Life didn’t end with a perfectly themed and titled song (“In A Body Like A Grave” — there’s a lyric about slowly dying from student loan debt in there somewhere), I probably wouldn’t really feel like I need to hear more from Japandroids. I saw them perform at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2018, which honestly sounds way cooler than it really is. I was talking with someone from Anti- who suggested that Japandroids had taken the muted reception to heart and were working on being more flexible and open-minded. During that run, they played two songs that I had never heard before and, according to setlist.fm, they’re called “International” and “Alice”; they sounded raw and energetic and not overly memorable. I figured they were either covers or deep cuts from their No Singles days. If this was the kind of music that a less perfectionistic Japandroids were going to be releasing, I could live without it. Seems like they could too. They announced one final four-date tour throughout Ontario, “before we hibernate to work on the next record.” This was September 2018. In the time since, they released Massey Fucking Hall in June 2020 (itself a three-year old live recording), planned an appearance at Shaky Knees Festival to play Celebration Rock in its entirety, and quietly cancelled said appearance. Given Japandroids’ well-documented history of sisyphean studio time, you can almost talk yourself into believing they’re actually in crunch time finishing LP4.

But here’s what I argue has diminished the rep of Japandroids most of all in the past decade: They might still pop up in the occasional press release RIYL, but I feel like very few of their fans are other musicians. This makes a lot of sense because Japandroids themselves don’t really consider themselves to be artists. “It’s not like I’m this super creative person who needs to express myself musically,” King told Pitchfork. “It’s more like we just need to record in order to play more shows.” Even though Japandroids released a legendary rock album, it does not present King and Prowse as people who were born for this shit, a la their heroes in Guns N’ Roses or AC/DC (let alone U2). It does not strike me as a work of magic or genius, even the kind exhibited by Paul Westerberg or Robert Pollard, guys who have likely forgotten more songs than Japandroids will ever write. They don’t even provide the lifeblood of punk rock, the vicarious thrill of seeing a couple of normal guys on stage and thinking, “I could do that.” Even in 2012, they were an outlier amongst wildly prolific garage rockers (Ty Segall, Cloud Nothings), DIY rawk lifers (Screaming Females, the Men), crusty post-rock titans (GY!BE, Swans), and vibey visionaries (DIIV, Tame Impala). Japandroids embodied maybe the dirtiest word in indie rock — tryhard.

Rather than trying to deny this obvious quality, it inspired one of the most insightful things I’ve ever seen an artist say about their own music: “There’s a difference between people who are born with that special thing and people who love the people who are born with that special thing so much that they want to try their best to get as close as they can to it.”

I mean, there it is. Maybe we’d be talking about Celebration Rock in 2022 if it were simply about what it says it is, i.e., drinking, rocking, drinking and rocking. But if that really was the case, my relationship with this album would be completely fraudulent. I have not downed drinks in a funnel of friends while listening to Celebration Rock. I was 32 years old when it came out and haven’t had a single drop of alcohol in the time since. At most, I have two or three friends at any given time who are willing to drop $35 or so to see a Japandroids show. In fact, when they played Pitchfork Music Festival in 2012, I remember one of my colleagues telling me, “I’ll let you go do your thing and we’ll catch up later”; the intensity of my Japandroids fandom was emitting a radioactive glare by that point.

That performance is actually pretty instructive to understand not just the appeal of Japandroids but also their design flaws which fans happily overlook because they’re essential to its emotional resonance. Watch the “Fire’s Highway” clip. There are so many cool moments — the part where the drums come in, the water bottle get tossed into the air perfectly with the guitar solo — and yet, on the whole, I wouldn’t use it as proof that Japandroids are a great live band. The shows are an incredible experience, but Japandroids really aren’t a great live band, which was ironically confirmed when they released Massey Fucking Hall. King can’t really hit the vocals on his most popular song, and he can’t really nail the vocals on most of the other ones either. On record, the whoas and yeahs sound like 500 people shouting in unison; on stage, they sound like two slightly off-key guys who’ve been on the road for three straight weeks. A typical Japandroids headlining gig lasts an hour or so, and it becomes clear why none of their albums are, or should be, longer than 35 or so minutes.

None of that shit really matters when Celebration Rock is actually playing. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal described the underlying plot of Celebration Rock as “a normal man pushing himself to abnormal places,” and while plenty of albums allow you to be a witness to that, none have better evoked the feeling of being an active participant. Brian King and David Prowse are a vestigial part of their own music: certainly not big, giant rock stars, but spirit guides for individuals seeking communal nirvana, spirit guides who know how to wisely get out of the way. U2 turned this kind of implacable, all-consuming desire into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and that’s where Japandroids truly break rank — Celebration Rock sounds like what happens if we find it.

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