After nearly three years spent incommunicado, the duo of Brian King (guitar/vocals) and David Prowse (drums/vocals) emerged as suddenly as they disappeared with news of a new record and impending tour dates only a few months ago. The announcement came much to the surprise and giddy glee of fans who long since assumed the band had called it a day following the seemingly insurmountable acclaim for 2012’s Celebration Rock, choosing to go out on a high note. Despite the churning rumor mill, Japandroids are back with Near to the Wild Heart of Life, which reflects the kind of patience, growth, and inward gazing that three years out of the public eye will offer.
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While the brand is the same – eight songs with a minimalist monochromatic portrait on the cover – these are not the Japandroids you’re looking for. Their previous two records were brash, relatively lo-fi, and infused with a punk rock energy that could crack the stage on which they stood. Near to the Wild Heart of Life dials all those qualities back and steers them in tamer but more creative directions. They’ve embraced a degree of experimentation that suits their grainy city-dweller oeuvre without deviating so far as to lose the fans who may want simply more of the same. This is no accident. In an interview with Stereogum back in November, King said “When we made Celebration Rock we were trying to top Post-Nothing by doing basically the same thing, following the same formula, and trying to do it better. This time we were trying to do something different.” Near to the Wild Heart of Life is less “rooftop party till dawn”, more “I have work in the morning.” The range and tempo are more dynamic, the production more refined, and the variety of genres into which toes are dipped wider.
The album begins with the eponymous single, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”. Those looking for a more early-era Japandroids vibe will find it here and here alone, though the fi is definitely higher. It’s almost as though they’re saying “Okay, here’s a little bit of the old stuff to satisfy you. This is home base. Now we venture out a little further.” Lyrically, the lead-off track sets the tone for what’s to come; the excitement and nerves of leaving home, and the same conflicting emotions as they pertain to past, present, and future (“The future’s under fire / the past is gaining ground / A continuous cold war between my home and my hometown”).
“North South East West” represents an immediately noticeable change in style. Is that an acoustic guitar?! (cue gasp) This is the closest Japandroids have gotten to writing a classic rock song. The acoustic-led intro and hook have a stadium-sized rock-n-roll quality that, paired with the driving hi-hat, almost makes the song glitter. It continues the theme of being away from home, and altogether carries a Tom Petty kind of mood. “True Love and A Free Life of Free Will” again begins with some uplifting acoustic guitars backed by Prowse’s thumping and thoroughly modern tom-heavy drum pattern that puts power behind its Springsteen-esque vibe and sky-high chorus.
The uplifting energy dips back down in the following track, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”, which comes across as more of a bridge between songs than a standalone track. However, we do glimpse a vulnerable side of Brian King among the bit-crushed backdrop that blurs the line between guitar and synth (“I’m sorry for not finding you sooner / I’ve been looking for you my whole life.”) The clear centerpiece of the album is the 7-minute-25-second “Arc of Bar”, a magnetic opus of drunken escapades that conjures images of big hair and tight leather pants. A swimming, sexy love song to the female-personified night and its sloshed debauchery (“For her love, I would help the Devil steal Christ right off the cross”). “Arc of Bar” brings the party back into the fold, and nowhere else will listeners see the band so enormous in the scale of their sound. To wit, it’s hard to imagine hearing the song in a small venue. The instrumentation is so rich and varied that it’s tough to believe that just the two of them could even pull it off live at all.
As the sun rises on “Arc of Bar”, we have “Midnight to Morning”, where Japandroids continue to demonstrate a sensitivity that was less in focus in their previous work. It’s a song about getting tired of moving through life at lightning speed and taking solace in the of peace and quiet at home (“If you’ll hide me and heal me in your sanctuary / I’ll stay forever so leave the light on and I’ll leave the bottle to its own”). Though not necessarily a detractor to the album as a whole, it’s likely the least exciting song off the eight. One of them has to be.
Getting towards the end is single number two, “No Known Drink or Drug”, a high-energy tune sung from close to the heart, resurrecting the brotherhood that their music and live shows bring out of fans. It’s quick, consistent, and catchy in its simplicity with little of the experimentation seen elsewhere on Near to the Wild Heart of Life.
The album concludes as they always do at track number eight, this time with the classic rock-tinged “In a Body Like A Grave” which is destined to become a singalong favorite at live shows. This is another one that puts their efforts for more varied dynamics on display. The first half is down-tempo and the instrumentation sparse to put the vocals out in front. It’s a moment of realism that wraps up the varied emotions and stories that preceded it in a straight-faced package.
While it can’t quite match Celebration Rock in terms of energy and elation, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a worthy expansion built upon the formidable bedrock lain in albums past. This is a different Japandroids, a band reborn after spending the last three-ish years in the process of coming to grips with their success and significant life changes. They didn’t want to keep doing the same thing because they know it’s not the point of being an artist. They intended to break their own rules and push back the boundaries of their box because they knew it would be challenging. Therefore, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is diverse and unbound by formula in a way that satisfies and intrigues, and it invites fans to follow the band into the next chapter of their music.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is available January 27th, 2017 on ANTI- Records.