Brian King of Japandroids is often stereotyped as a Talking Ken doll filled with AC/DC quotes—push his buttons and you're getting, in some combination: Whoa! Yeah! Alright! Girls! Drinking! An unintended upside is that there's little room in his vocabulary for the thinnest and most frequently used word in the indie rock lexicon: "I" appears on their beloved 2012 album Celebration Rock only twice. And it takes nearly a half-hour for its grand entrance, in the context of the greatest boast of post-break-up survival skills of the 21st century: "You're not mine to die for anymore, so I must live!" It's defiant but respectful, a version of the Bruce Springsteen cameo in High Fidelity that's aged much, much better .
Granted, most Japandroids songs use first-person pronouns, frequently in the plural—blazing down Fire's Highway is even better when your best friend calls shotgun. But while King—white t-shirt, jeans, leather jacket, tousled hair, tall and conventionally masculine—looks like an appropriate emissary for the tall tales told in Japandroids songs, at no point does the listener ever have to think of them as having happened to Brian King; none of these stories really belong to him, nor should they because almost none of it is based in tangible reality. If King claimed them as his own, he'd be deemed full of shit, or at least ironic. Or Japandroids are just viewed somewhere between the Darkness and Diarrhea Planet rather than the Replacements and Guns 'n Roses. But by taking himself out of the frame, Celebration Rock read like public domain, belonging to no one and thus big enough to include everyone.
Every single review of Japandroids' new album Near to the Wild Heart of Life will undoubtedly kill a few paragraphs reiterating what you already know from the interviews: the production values are higher, the tempos are slower, there's more breathing room for everything that would otherwise be heard as narcing on the past proceedings; acoustic guitars, synths, girlfriends. Those matter, but they're not important. The only real difference between Near to the Wild Heart and Celebration Rock is that King uses his first "I" within the first verse of the first song. Four and a half years after making the best rock record of the decade, Japandroids feel finally secure enough to write autobiography. It's the best thing they could've possibly done.
Look, it's awesome to see fans and critics alike yell like hell to the heavens about Japandroids making drinking sound like a higher calling, dumbing out in a CAPS LOCK/all-emojis-and-exclamation-points manner usually reserved for Migos songs. Few bands with guitars even try to attempt this and maybe one or two succeed, just enough to remind you that Japandroids do it better: since the blurry, beery, bashed-out Post-Nothing in 2009, Japandroids have learned how to delay gratification and make that delay as exciting as the actually big drop that everyone knows is right around the bend. Witness the white-knuckled pause before the chorus of the title track, the drum rumble during the second half of the Olympic "No Known Drink or Drug" that sets the pace for a victory lap on a runner's high, the tension in the "Arc of Bar" intro where the guitar is just about to come in on a windmill strum. Two guys should not be able to play rock music this beautifully grand and expansive, and yet it feels like a restoration of natural order at the same time—after all, "rock" was the first genre to use "arena" as an adjective.
However, this often tempts fans to play towards the unfortunate tendency of framing Japandroids as saviors or avatars of rock music itself; branding their fans as prima facie rockist reactionaries, even though they likely listen to Migos or Frank Ocean like Japandroids do. Likewise, the idea that Japandroids songs are strictly about getting drunk and making out denies them any sort of agency and turns them into substantial version of, say, Andrew WK.
By taking personal ownership of the lyrics here, King brings anyone who's been paying attention to acknowledge the emotional thrust of Japandroids' entire existence. In a 2012 interview with Pitchfork, one that preceded the release and subsequent canonization of Celebration Rock, King said, "There's a difference between people who are born with that special thing and people who love the people who are born with that special thing so much that they want to try their best to get as close as they can to it."
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is even more try-hard than its predecessor. It has no other choice. And it makes good on the motivational and aspirational component of Celebration Rock by completing a heretofore unexplored trilogy: Post-Nothing worried about dying, Celebration Rock dreamed about living, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is living the dream.
Though the initial rush of the title track recalls "The Boys Are Leaving Town," it sounds like a damn Steely Dan production compared to Post-Nothing. The distance seems intentional—"I was destined to die dreaming," King sings, calling back to the chorus of "Young Hearts Spark Fire" ("we used to dream, now we worry about dying"). "My best friend," presumably drummer David Prowse, urges him to leave the comforts of Vancouver for the betterment of both of them.
While "Near to the Wild Heart of Life" inevitably gets placed in the lineage of "let's get out of this godforsaken town" rock songs—it's "Thunder Road" meets Jimmy Eat World's "Big Casino"—it doesn't look back and ask, "how did I get here?" It's no different than the feeling of sitting in your own office after years of answering someone else's phone, saving up enough money to live without roommates for the first time, finishing a thesis paper, anything that wouldn't be anywhere near as enjoyable without some kind of incomplete, liminal and desperate state to which it can be compared.
On Post-Nothing, "Sovereignty" and "Rockers East Vancouver" were songs about the road that treated displacement as a necessary evil, always inferior to "home." Near to the Wild Heart of Life's literal interstate love song "North East South West" boils over with the kind of joy of being able to call anywhere home, at least for a few days, underpinned by all of the fuck-ups and misadventures that became teachable moments. The simplest track, "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)," damn near sounds like Mylo's ecstatic blog-house banger "In My Arms" in slow motion, and only has one clearly understandable lyric—"I've been looking for you my whole life." It's a break in the action, of that perpetual questing; the bittersweet point where all of the pain and uncertainty and doubt that comes with action gives way to the moment where a relationship, a job, a group of friends, a city, floods you with the sense that everything's in its right place for once.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life hits that nerve repeatedly, even on the songs that don't sound as immediately sentimental. Hearing "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)" makes it hard to reconcile with the backlash that was welling up against Japandroids for the past four years—that they're a band for dudes. And yes, I imagine that most of the rooms on this tour will largely be filled with dudes (having Craig Finn as the opener doesn't exactly help this issue), but with all due respect, so is your average Oneohtrix Point Never show. Spin critic Jeremy Gordon noted the power of believing Japandroids offered a "safe space for male friendship," and there's definitely something to it. But Japandroids is "locker room talk" completely inverted, allowing dudes to reveal their dumbest, boldest dreams and say to their best bud, "I FUCKING LOVE YOU, BRO" in a private and vulnerable moment. On Japandroids records, the only thing better than male friendship is drinking, which still isn't better than rock music, which is nowhere even close to being as awesome as women.
In fact, Near to the Wild Heart of Life might as well be a concept album about wanting to be a good boyfriend in your 30s. It can present itself as obviously as having their girlfriends provide vocals on "Arc of Bar," a dream double-date that serves as the first time Japandroids have ever sounded sexy—that was always something that remained theoretical on Celebration Rock. The hopes and dreams of "True Love and a Free Life of Free Will" are predicated on equanimity and mutual devotion. Likewise, "Midnight to Morning," Prowse's first lead vocal since "Sovereignty," recognizes that the road isn't a one-way street to the next conquest: it takes you back to the ones you love as well, you can think you were "born to marry the bottle in a ceremony that lasts forever" before finding sanctuary in another—coupledom is holiness here.
"Sovereignty" was the seventh track on Post-Nothing; "The House that Heaven Built" held down the same spot on Celebration Rock. Since all Japandroids records have eight songs, this is clearly the valedictory speech. Anyways, remember the first verse of "The Nights of Wine and Roses"?
Don't we have anything to live for?
Well, of course we do
But until they come true
And we're still smoking!
The most unabashed love song on an album full of them, "No Known Drink or Drug," is given its title because neither of them "could ever hold a candle to your love." It won't solve all of all our problems—closer "In a Body Like a Grave" presents the heretofore implausible Japandroids song about fucking student loans, amongst other things that will sap your soul, bank account, and anything else typically used as a measurement of emotional status. But Near to the Wild Heart of Life ends by pleading, "love so hard that time stands still," unashamedly romantic in every sense, but a reminder that even if you don't have the answers or the body that you want, whether or not you love with a legendary fire is ultimately up to you. For Japandroids, that legendary fire is a light that never goes out.
All photos by Matt Forsythe.
Ian Cohen is a writer based in north, south, east, west, coast to coast. Follow him on Twitter.