The new Japandroids album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, kicks off in their instantly recognizable style. The title and first track on the album immediately bridges the gulf of the five years since their last release, Celebration Rock.
The band keeps the party they are throwing with this album roaring on the second track, an ode to the band’s travels all over North America. “North East South West” is the kind of rager that will have you double-fisting in no time. This is feel-good rock. One of the things that is fascinating about this track is that it has a distinctly “heartland” feel to it. The chords evoke the feel of the Mellencamp classic “Pink Houses”. Combined with the lyrical love note to North America, coast-to-coast, well… as the assured crowd pleasing chorus says “it ain’t shit, it’s just kicks”. But then the band does something surprising: they take their foot off the gas pedal and finally pull the van into the driveway. Then the album gets even more interesting.
The third track, “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” delivers a stark drum beat, more jangly chords, and a plaintive vocal line from Brian King. The song feels like a cacophonous confession as King pours out what feels like a lament of the exhaustion of the road, a tried and true subject for most rock bands (including “Fire’s Highway” from the ‘droids own previous effort), that is delivered in its own unique Japandroids kind of way. Bitter, honest, tired, and still about being in love.
As the fourth track, “I’m Sorry for Not Finding You Sooner”, seamlessly flows out of the end of the previous song the gradual realization hits you that this, in fact, isn’t your standard ‘droids adventure. This is a band that did some living in the five years that passed between albums. Some good, some bad, much of it memorable if they only could. This brief meditation gives way to more of the unexpected.
A very ‘80s synth line and kick drum introduce some interesting elements on “Arc of Bar”. Once the guitar rings out you might be forgiven for hearing hints of the iconic Simple Minds single, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” which becomes just that tiny bit more urgent with each keyboard pulse. The thing that helps this band escape anything resembling blasé mimicry is that everything still revolves around the simultaneously sardonic and celebratory vocals, the wiry, distorted guitar, and the thunderous beats of drummer, David Prowse. The one problem with this track, though, is that it does become somewhat repetitive over the course of 7 and a half minutes. Yet, somehow, it pulls the magic trick of getting out just in time before it might actually create a sense of boredom.
The second single from the album, “No Known Drink or Drug”, brings us back into more familiar territory. The feel is of a band re-energized and ready to take on the world again. The band even utilize this song to deliver an actual mission statement: “Our mission: making moments into memories”. The thing is, on this song the band never really quite works itself up into its trademark lather. It leaves you wanting more, but it’s more from a sense that something else was supposed to kick off where instead it simply fades out.
Album closer, “In a Body Like a Grave”, slowly builds in a Springsteen-ian lament of the stages of life. If the band weren’t deliberately trying for the Boss’ trademark feel then this is an amazing accident. This is one of those songs that seems somewhat unassuming until you examine its individual parts. The ghost tones of Roy Bittan-stye keys hangs over the proceedings while Prowse has some very Weinberg-esque moments in the drum fills which throws the finale over the edge and brings the album to a satisfying denouement.
This record, warts and all, captures a band with little left to really prove, striving to outdo themselves and stretch in ways that maybe they haven’t before. Some of it works amazingly well. Some of it not so much. Every road has its bumps but by and large, this one for Japandroids is smooth sailing into their next era. Long live the ‘droids.