Japandroids lose their way on Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Near to the Wild Heart of Life

The best thing about Canadian duo Japandroids is that you know what you've signed up for: songs about late nights and early disappointments, whisky and romance, high fives and low lives. It's always been a fine line, of course, between poignant and crass. But with a third record titled Near to the Wild Heart of Life, it never seemed likely they were going to play it safe.

If their 2009 debut passed me by, it was perhaps due to a commitment that record made to low fidelity hi-jinks. I love a blue collar rock anthem as much as the next man, but something about Post-Nothing’s songs lacked the emotional ethanol to start a fire in me, as much as they tried in earnest. “You can keep tomorrow,” they sang, “after tonight, we’re not gonna need it.” I just didn’t really but it.

By the time fireworks were heralding the end of 2012’s Celebration Rock, I was sold. Opener “The Nights of Wine and Roses” had perfected everything they’d tried to convey on the first album (variations on the “yeah, we’re drunk, but whatever, we like girls” theme), but it was closing track “Continuous Thunder” that sent – god, still sends – shivers down the back of my neck. King’s lyrics had sounded bleak before, desperate even, but they’d never sounded this goddamn raw: “If I had all of the answers, and you had the body you wanted, would we love with a legendary fire? And if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire, would you still take my hand tonight?” It finally happened: they had their Springsteen moment.

Now they’ve essentially made an album’s worth of those moments. A note of caution: you’ll recall the last time a modern indie band attempted a full-blooded, full album swing at channelling The Boss, it resulted in Sam’s Town. As on that record, the aforementioned line - the one that separates thrilling grandeur from overblown vacuity - is frequently crossed on Near to the Wild Heart of Life.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the band’s ability to start and finish an album in style. The opening title track immediately brings those goosebumps rushing back, the verse’s shimmering minor chords almost a direct transplant from “Continuous Thunder,” while the chorus shouts of “oh-oh, oh-oh” prove utterly irresistible. Lyrically, too, everything here is crisp, not least the unbearably opposite line that opens the record: “Our future’s under fire, the past is gaining ground.” At the other end, the turbo-charged “In a Body Like a Grave” brings nothing new to the Japandroids’ musical formula – notably the chorus template of singing the same note over bright major chords for a few bars, then throwing in some minor chords near the end for intrigue, has begun to dim a little at this point. But hey, it’s identifiably the work of Brian King and David Prowse. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

What happens in between is a more complicated affair, and rarely for the better. “North East South West” particularly recalls that second Killers album, the chorus even swiped straight from “When You Were Young”. It’s always a gamble playing your rock game this hackneyed and takes a strong set of lyrics with some rough edges thrown in to prevent the whole thing collapsing into a saccharine puddle, both of which are sadly absent here. “It ain’t shit,” King hollers at the end of said chorus, “it’s just kicks. And like the road, I’m going on, and on, and on.” Maybe it’s a nod to the band’s increased reliance on clichés to pad out their storytelling, but it doesn’t feel like they’re in on the joke.

Rather than dialling it down a notch, “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” (congratulations to everyone playing Japandroids song title bingo) continues to pile vague sentiments about liberty onto plodding guitar movements, while the aimless “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” sounds like a demo idea that was left on the album by mistake. Most dissatisfying of all is “Arc of Bar,” not least because, at well over seven minutes, it’s clearly positioned as a centrepiece of the record. “All of this we tried to hide over a glaze of sweat and fire,” they sing, over an aggressively dull backing track. I know, buddy. I know.

It’s hard to write Japandroids off when they’re so clearly still capable of magic, but on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, they’ve simply handed us a record that proves enormously difficult to love. I’m not breaking up with them just yet. But damn, I miss the fireworks we had before.

Release: 27th January 2017, Anti Records

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