Review Summary: The hangover sets in.
Strangely inert for a band that practically built their brand on hurtling recklessly forward, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
is the sound of a comfortable band stretching the limits of their sound and their fans’ goodwill. How many Pabst-in-the-air anthems can you stomach in one sitting? At a Japandroids show, this is generally a rhetorical question. Brian King’s infectious, vein-bulging yelps and David Prowse’s blistering skin work, the sound of a unit of artillery set off by one man, are enough to make even the most cynical child of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s unironically raise their clenched fist. A lyric like “must get to France / so we can French kiss some French girls” is stupid and fun, and there’s that sweaty wink amid the guileless sincerity, punctuated by a band that sounded like they could defeat all the evil of the world with just a guitar, a drum set, and the lack of anything approaching irony. A lyric like “I used to be good but now I’m bad,” from the title track? Well, I’d probably have to be a fair bit drunker to appreciate that one.
It’s hard to put a finger on just where Japandroids went wrong. Celebration Rock
was hardly a revolution after 2009 debut Post-Nothing
; if anything, the anthems were louder, the band was looser, the girls were feistier and the drinking was more or less the same, yet you rarely felt as if Japandroids were taking you for granted. The songs were vibrant, alive, a celebration, yes, of rock ‘n roll, built on a fairly simple alchemical reaction between garage punk and heartland rock. Nothing’s changed here, except the mixture is no secret, the glitzy production can’t hide the seams on King’s songwriting, and Prowse sounds less like a gorilla and more like a drummer. What was once heartfelt now sounds clichéd, none worse than the wannabe epic “Arc of Bar,” where King mistakes a cheesy ‘80s road movie for a deep slice-of-life narrative by writing seven-and-a-half minutes of tortured similes and grade-school poetry. The opening third, from the title track through “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” feels rote, sounds like the Japandroids seemingly distilled down to their essence but never sparking, never moving beyond just another typical Japandroids song. They sound like songs meant to soundtrack a car commercial, sweeping vistas of canyons and rugged blacktop, and a crass inversion of the band’s roots.
A simple diagnosis would be that the Japandroids have kicked over one too many mic stands at this point in career, a classic case of diminishing returns. Yet there are songs here - the hypnotic drone of “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” the jangle and an unashamed earnestness that feels earned in “In A Body Like A Grave” - where you can forgive the band their single dimension, because, occasionally, a really killer single comes along. While too much of the record is vaguely colorless, an imitation of stronger and more lived-in feelings and stories, “No Known Drink or Drug” succeeds because it has that ineffable energy that sparks young hearts, culminating in one of those so-obvious-it’s-brilliant lyric that you can’t help but drum along to Prowse’s rolls. The “na-na-na’s” and the generous layer of fuzz help, too, tricking you into thinking it’s 2009 again, and the whole world was in front of you waiting to get its ass kicked. It’s an illusion, of course, a temporary escape from a record that feels as lackluster and mechanical as much of its fanbase likely did after 2016, content to go through the motions and live for the weekend. No, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
succeeds only in proving that the Japandroids of 2017 will have a hard time matching their former glories.