Japandroids has always been a frenetic, freight train of a band, blending the driving fury of classic rock and punk bands like Springsteen and The Replacements. 2012’s Celebration Rock was a perfect encapsulation of the duo’s aesthetic – eight gutpunching rock anthems barreling off into the night from the very first note, and never letting up until the very last. Sadly, Near to the Wild Heart of Life does not reach those same highs. While the record is cleaner, a more proper studio creation, than previous efforts, it suffers from its abundance of polish. Ultimately, it is much tamer than its title would indicate.
It’s not that the album is bad, per se. David Prowse undulating drumwork is as powerful as ever, all muscle and sinew. And guitarist Brian King is still on point, strumming furiously and making his instrument filling the space of three. There’s still a lot to love in the band’s commitment to the dive-bar rock and roll of their personal heroes. They have a comfort zone, and it’s a good one, but the genre doesn’t tolerate a lot of slack. Near to the Wild Heart of Life slows down by the third track and sags a little in the middle. But it picks back up again at “Arc of Bar,” which, though not exactly frenzied, is still a forceful example of the kind of arena rock song that inspires legions of lighters held in the air. From there, it holds its tempo up, albeit only just. But nothing on the record holds up to the promise that the first track offers.
Lyrically, the album is a paean to the life of a touring band, full of musings about the difficulties of love on the road, constant travel and inevitable homecomings (the duo’s hometown, Vancouver, figures prominently). There’s more than a little Tom Waits here, perhaps spurred by the fact that the band now shares the same label as the inveterate King of Weird. The characters that occupy the songs, when there are characters beyond the narrator errant, are liminal figures: King sings about “heathens, harlots, and anti-heroines,” on “True Love and a Life of Free Will,” or “hustlers, whores, in rooms galore,” on “Arc of Bar.” Japandroids are a bar band at heart, and their songs attract the same whiskey-soaked, smoky figures that you might expect to hear from from Waits’ early records. But Japandroids don’t give them the room to develop that Waits does; they are mere window dressing. And there are some truly trite turns of phrase on this record: the opening title track, while certainly one of the more exciting and driving tracks, has King singing “I used to be good, but now I’m bad.” Bruce Campbell could pull off a line that cheesy. Japandroids can’t, and it just falls flat.
For all my criticism, I still liked this record. It still hits some of the same highs as the band’s previous efforts. It’s just that those highs are fewer and farther in between. Consider this is the Japandroids’ version of a ballad album. Though they’ve reined themselves in a bit, they’re still at heart the same animal. A little less wild, perhaps, but still worth the door charge.
Final Verdict: 6 out of 10.