Japandroids’ New Album ‘Near To The Wild Heart Of Life’ Is A Minor Miracle

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).

Celebration Rock was designed for the space between 10 PM and 2 AM, when you’re drunk enough not to be self-conscious and just sober enough to not be passed out. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life meanwhile is made for every other hour of the day, when you’re trying to negotiate your hopes and dreams amid the trials and disappointments of boring old non-party-hearty everyday life. To put it in Springsteen terms: Celebration Rock is Born To Run, and Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is The River.

According to the press materials, the eight songs on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life form a loose narrative. (The eight-song track list is also significant — King and drummer David Prowse have pointed to other eight-song masterworks such as Led Zeppelin’s Untitled (or IV), Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets, the Stooges’ Raw Power, and of course Born To Run as inspirations.) I’ve been listening to Near To The Wild Heart Of Life a lot for the past month, and this is my educated guess for what the narrative of this album is.

1. “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”
This is the first of two songs that sound like an outtake from Celebration Rock — the guitar buzzes like tinfoil in a bonfire, the beat seems stuck in a perpetual drum roll, and King sings about a girl who “kissed me like a chorus.” Lyrically, it’s a classic “Thunder Road” narrative about living in a town full of losers and pulling out of there to win.

2. “North South East West”
The kid leaves town and joins a rock band. (Judging by this song’s fuzzy jangle, the band is Lifes Rich Pageant-era R.E.M.) Life on the road is awesome and also terrible, as everyone from Bob Seger to Bon Jovi has told us. “America made a mess of me / When I messed with Texas and Tennessee,” King sings. Translation: Don’t eat too much barbecue on the road.

3. “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”
Burned out from the road, the kid meets the love of his life and feels rejuvenated. A full-blown love song, “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” echoes Celebration Rock‘s “Continuous Thunder,” only that song ended Celebration Rock and this song takes place near the midpoint of Near To The Wild Heart of Life. The rest of this album is about what happens after the supposed fairy-tale ending.

4. “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”
The shortest and prettiest track on the record — it sounds processed in a way that evokes a faded memory. (You can practically hear Wayne’s World-style fantasy-sequence squiggles beneath the dreamy guitars and King’s vocal.) This is where the hero and his girl get married. It’s this album’s version of “The River,” except it ends after the first verse. (Things never get that dark in the Japandroids’ world.)

5. “Arc Of Bar”
The kid decides to write the greatest song of all time so that his band can become huge. “Arc Of Bar” is that song. It has the music of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack of Hearts.” In the alternate dimension where Japandroids play arenas, this is always the fourth song in the set, i.e. the one that queues up the laser-light show.

6. “Midnight To Morning”
The song works! The band becomes super-famous and goes on the road. But this poses a threat to the kid and his girl’s relationship. The kid is surrendering to the rock life — he laments that he’s “born to marry the bottle.” But he holds out hope for redemption: “So many miles, so much to lose 
/ Devil by my side, right between us two /
 And I’m praying those yellow lines / On the I-5 bring me back home to you.”

7. “No Known Drink Or Drug”
This is the other Celebration Rock throwback, and it’s positioned on the album for maximum emotional impact. (This is also the spot that “The House That Heaven Built” held on Celebration Rock.) When the final 60 seconds hits, it’s like Mola Ram from Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom reaching into your chest. And the big pay-off is appropriate for the narrative, because this is where the kid realizes that he can have his band so long as he cares about the other stuff in his life a little bit more. “And no known drink, no known drug could ever hold a candle to your love,” King says. Boy kisses girl. Roll credits.

8. “In A Body Like A Grave”
This song isn’t part of the main narrative — “In a Body Like A Grave” has been described by the band as an epilogue. Amazingly, “In A Body Like A Grave” appears to have anticipated Near To The Wild Heart of Life coming out the week after Trump’s inauguration. Obviously this is impossible — the album was recorded well before the U.S. presidential election — and yet I swear it’s what happened. (My only explanation for this is that Canadians know Americans better than we know ourselves.) Set against a bombastic acoustic guitar strum that rains down like bombed-out protest music, King underlines the message of the record — good and bad stuff happens in life, but you must always push forward no matter what — while explicitly addressing the the need for hope amid abject hopelessness.

King lists all of the things that can betray you in life — religion, personal debt, your own body — before finding an unexpected ray of light: “But remember there’s heaven in the hellest of holes / And a drink for the body is a dream for the soul.”

Near To The Wild Heart of Life is less ecstatic than Celebration Rock, but it’s also more present and, ultimately, more hopeful. For all its good vibes, Celebration Rock is a sneakily sorrowful record, a nostalgic party that ultimately felt like a wake for lost innocence and, perhaps, rock ‘n’ roll itself. In a way, it was a precursor to “aging punk” records like Jeff Rosenstock’s Worry and The Menzingers’ forthcoming After The Party, which grapple with the anxiety of being subsumed by the lameness of adulthood, where growing up is itself a kind of death. But on Near To The Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids dare to look straight into the teeth of all that’s scary and unknown about what’s coming at us, and find reason to hope and persevere. If there truly is heaven in the hellest of holes, it’s high time we set about finding it. Until then, let’s pour another drink and dream another dream.

Stream Near To The Wild Heart Of Life below.
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Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is out next Friday, 1/27 via Anti Records. Pre-order it here.