An album primarily concerned with drinking, smoking, the passage of time, and deathless rock ‘n’ roll mythology, Japandroids’ second LP Celebration Rock felt for some of us like a paradigm-shifter back in 2012. With their wall-to-wall, shout-it-out anthems — in which very chorus is triumphant, every lyric is unabashedly purple, and no “whoa!” is left unfurled — the Canadian punk duo reshaped my expectations for what rock ‘n’ roll should be in the ’10s. Japandroids sent me scurrying back to the earnest rock records I had once loved and thought I had outgrown. They made me desperate to hear other new bands that were ready to carry the torch forward, no matter the prevailing trends. (Fortunately, there was a whole generation of them about to emerge.) After Celebration Rock, run-of-the-mill, fashion-plate indie-rock wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
I’ve likened Celebration Rock to a rock ‘n’ roll Pulp Fiction — it pinpointed all of the rock cliches that were seemingly exhausted, and reinvigorated every single one of them through sheer enthusiasm, making you feel the power of those conventions before they were cheapened and nearly discarded forever.
The problem is, where do you go after that? The simplicity of Japandroids’ approach — one guitarist, one drummer, one (extremely excitable) emotional mode — was a big part of what made Celebration Rock so exciting. But it’s also inherently limiting. As great as Celebration Rock is — I’d argue it’s among the four or five best rock albums of the decade — it seemed to have painted Japandroids into a corner.
However, I’m thrilled to report that what seemed to be true about Japandroids has in fact proven not be the case. The group’s first LP in almost five years, Near To The Wild Heart of Life, is a minor miracle, marking a definite progression from Celebration Rock without sacrificing what made Japandroids so magical in the first place. It’s the rare follow-up to a classic release that evolves just enough.
First, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life sounds better than Celebration Rock, and by “better” I mean “bigger.” Compared with its predecessor, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is practically stadium rock. (My favorite track, “Arc Of Bar,” seems like a deliberate homage to the best stadium-rock album of all time, The Who’s Who’s Next. In 20 years, I fully expect to hear “Arc Of Bar” playing over the opening credits of a CBS procedural.) Considering that Japandroids play 1,000-person halls, squeezing this mammoth-sounding music inside those relatively tight spaces is going to result in an incredibly powerful experience for anyone who decides to see Japandroids on their upcoming tour. (Tip: See Japandroids on their upcoming tour.)
Second, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is more musically diverse, though “diverse” in this context is a relative term. There are only two songs that sound like they could’ve appeared on Celebration Rock, and their placement on the record suggests that Japandroids were self-aware about using these throwbacks as bookends in order to contextualize the songs that are stylistic departures. (More on this in a minute.)
The musical diversity of Near To The Wild Heart Of Life has been a focal point of the early press coverage — critics have pointed out how Japandroids are now playing around with synths, acoustic guitars, and even ballads. That this is even news re-iterates how small Japandroids’ musical palate actually is. Near To The Wild Heart of Life is still a Japandroids record — it’s not really that different. (Japandroids basically have the same sonic range as AC/DC, though the Young brothers would’ve drowned “Mutt” Lange in a tub of Fosters if he had put a synthesizer on Back In Black.)
But unlike Celebration Rock, you can actually take a breath or two during Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, and consider some bigger questions beyond, “Weren’t we crazy back in high school?” This is the most crucial difference between the albums, and it might be the departure point for those who don’t want to move beyond the arrested adolescence of Celebration Rock.
Japandroids’ singer, guitarist and songwriter Brian King made an astute point to Pitchfork about how the greatest rock albums “work anytime because there’s a little something for everyone.” That doesn’t just apply to the music, but also subject matter. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is a “mature” sequel, in the sense that Japandroids are no longer concerned with just the dynamics of male friendships (but also adult romantic relationships with women), or with just living for tonight (but also tomorrow and all of the days after that).