Each Japandroids full-length has felt hard-won, not inevitable. The Vancouver duo intended to posthumously self-release its 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, but some label interest and online acclaim turned the album into a commencement, not a eulogy. Touring made writing a successor difficult, so the band released a few singles, but when guitarist-vocalist Brian King and drummer David Prowse reconvened in late 2011 to write new music, the difficulties continued. The pair eventually decamped for Nashville for a change of scenery, and the results produced 2012’s excellent Celebration Rock.
As King notes in the press materials for Japandroids’ new full-length, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, the group toured Celebration Rock until November 2013, then didn’t perform live again for three years. King moved to Toronto then to Mexico City, “totally transforming the way [they] write and work,” he says in press materials. He and Prowse began working on new material in New Orleans in the fall of 2014, a process that continued for a year in the various cities the duo calls home.
The results will look and sound familiar to fans, from the cover’s black-and-white portrait of King and Prowse, to the number of tracks (eight, “the standard template for a great rock ’n’ roll album,” per King), to the credits (Jesse Gander, who also recorded Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock), to King’s passionate exhortations to do stuff like “succumb to the city and surrender, baby.”
But the advance press around Near To The Wild Heart Of Life spoke of the group taking a departure. (“Synths! Ballads! Acoustic Guitars! Welcome to Japandroids 2.0” exclaimed Pitchfork.) True, the album has all of those elements and more polished production, though Near To The Wild Heart Of Life remains a Japandroids album—even with “Arc Of Bar” riding washes of synthesizers for seven and a half minutes at the halfway point. The band has expanded its sound while hewing close to what it does best.
“Arc Of Bar” anchors the center of the album’s middle third, a trio of tracks that mark Near To The Wild Heart Of Life’s primary point of departure from Japandroids’ other albums. Whereas Celebration Rock didn’t relent until its closing song, the new album slows down by its third track, “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will.” The song hits the band’s favorite thematic notes (“cigarettes, sorcery, and biblical sins / hangovers, heathens, harlots, and anti-heroines / the cabarets, the getaways, and the afterglow / a little money, and whatever is on the radio”), but takes a more measured approach. The song slowly builds around Prowse’s martial beat, layering guitars (acoustic and otherwise) and some subtle synth lines to a crescendo fit to score an emotional-yet-triumphant movie scene.
It works well, but Japandroids remain at their best when they let loose. The title track, which opens the album, is a worthy successor to Celebration Rock’s best fist-pumper, “The House That Heaven Built.” “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” is Peak Japandroids, a song about getting “fired up” and not leaving “your dreams to chance or a spirit in the sky.” “North East South West” follows it, a more restrained travelogue that dismisses the allure of life as a touring band as “ain’t shit compared to loving you.”
Japandroids have always been in love with love, and that goes double on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, packed as it is with passionate proclamations of devotion. Arriving at the album’s halfway point, the quick “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” finds King repeating “I’m sorry for not finding you sooner / I was looking for you all my life.” In “Arc Of Bar,” he sings, “For her love, I would help the devil to steal Christ right off the cross.” In “No Known Drink Or Drug,” no intoxicant “could ever hold a candle to your love.” Celebration Rock sung the praises of “The Nights Of Wine And Roses” and the “Adrenaline Nightshift,” but Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, despite its title, mostly finds its joy in the arms of someone waiting back home.
That shouldn’t seem out of character. Japandroids have always sought love and adventure in equal measure, and they get both on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. Just don’t expect a band this restless to settle down too much.