Boys Meet World: Love Finally Finds Japandroids on Life-Affirming 'Near to the Wild Heart of Life' (Critic's Take)
Everyone who attempts to hang on the highs of adolescence longer than traditionally deemed acceptable is ultimately forced to face the very scary question: When does this stop being romantic and start to just be kind of sad? No one's self-ascribed glory days last forever, and the only thing more heartbreaking than giving up on your ideals and dreams too early is holding onto them for far too long. Eventually, you take one wrong look in the mirror, or in the faces of the similarly minded people you surround yourself with, and suddenly everything you knew to be right and true in the world seems to flip -- from there, it's pretty tough to ever get all the way back. And at that point, you just hope that there's still something else out there beyond fire's highway.
Vancouver power duo Japandroids, who release their long-awaited third album Near to the Wild Heart of Life today (Jan. 27), have been one of the world's most exciting rock bands for nearly a decade now, largely because their music has always teetered on the precipice of this moment. They were never that young, at least as we knew 'em -- by 2009 debut album Post Nothing, Brian King and David Prowse were already about a half-decade out of college, though they still thrashed and threw down like a couple of undergrads. Even then, the weariness was setting in: "We used to dream/ Now we worry about dying," went the chorus to breakout crit-hit "Young Hearts Spark Fire."
The true thrill came from how Japandroids acknowledged the sun setting on their youth, but still raged against the light's dying like true believers in rock's power to grant immortality. And the stakes doubled for 2012's highly acclaimed Celebration Rock, recorded in the duo's late 20s after ulcer scares nearly robbed King of a lot more than his innocence. The album was a triumph, more fearful and more resolute than ever, shot through with a now-or-never urgency that made for emotional and instrumental catharsis more explosive than the firework sounds that opened and closed the LP.
The worldview of Japandroids before Wild Heart was based on obvious and agreeable central tenets: going out, drinking, smoking, yelling. But most of all, it was based on devotion to one another: The rush of Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock tapped into the quintessentially young feeling of your group of friends -- maybe just one friend in particular -- being your entire world, of everything being "We" by default, of any other way of life being virtually unimaginable. Because they played as a guitar-and-drums duo uninterested in roster expansion, because so many vocals were delivered in unison, and because pronouns were more often plural than singular, the sense of solidarity was absolutely intoxicating for two albums.
But the longer Japandroids took to return for LP3, the less the formula seemed repeatable for a third time -- could Brian and Dave, now solidly in their 30s, really spend a third LP seeking teenage kicks and have it feel more inspiring than depressing? Or would there finally have to be something else?
Near to the Wild Heart of Life arrives with that something else in tow -- the duo has found love, in a place that wasn't nearly as hopeless as they might've feared. Which isn't to say that Japandroids' first two albums were heartless by any stretch, but they mostly treated opposite-sex interaction as an adolescent combination of fantasy and curiosity, something to be talked up ("We run the gauntlet, must get to France/ So we can French kiss some French girls") more often than actually achieved.
Celebration Rock's "Younger Us" was inarguably the duo's greatest love song to date, and it was of course an ode to each other, with the kind of pinpointed moments of true friendship ("Remember that time when you were already in bed/ Said 'Fuck it,' got up to drink with me instead?") to make you waste a whole night digging for dumb college photos on Facebook. But the "pain from an old wound" element of the nostalgia in "Younger Us" pulls no punches; the song's emotional wallop comes from its open admission that those days of peak fraternity are now firmly in the rearview, and only getting farther away.
From the first track of Wild Heart, it's clear that Japandroids' world has expanded beyond one another. The title-track opener is a narrative that posits itself as a sort of origin story for the band itself, telling the tale in wide, apocryphal pen strokes of how King left his hometown to conquer the world and "make some ears ring with the sound of my singing."
But break the song down by verse and it reads as the story of how King learned to move beyond Prowse and his old life, with his "best friend" instructing him "You can’t condemn your love/ To linger here and die," and ultimately getting his buddy "all fired up/ to go far away." (Indeed, in real life, King moved from Vancouver to Toronto before the album's recording.) Then in the second verse, the singer receives further encouragement and a kiss "like a chorus" from a female bartender, and in the third and final verse, he's visited by an ambiguous apparition ("My body broke out in a sweat/ From seeing you in dreams") that seems to be prepping him for that something even bigger than friendships and hookups.
The majority of the ensuing album finds King embracing that thing called love -- the more conventionally romantic kind -- in a way seen only in flashes through the duo's first two albums. "Be the beast, but free what burdens me/ And I’ll love you ‘cause you love me/ All life long, till I'm gone," he sings on "True Love and a Free Life of Free Will," an eternal commitment echoed in second-side centerpiece "Morning to Midnight" ("But if you’ll hide me and heal me in your sanctuary/ I’ll stay forever"), statements from a place in too deep to remember what life was like on the outside.
Wild Heart's most seemingly inconsequential track, the swirling two-minute interlude "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)" unfolds as the key to maybe the whole album, as King follows the titular apology with the explanation: "I was looking for you all my life." Of course it's not literally true, it just feels that way when you've found the person that finally allows your entire life to make sense, and you can't help but look back in frustration on all the time you wasted beforehand.
It's not just the lyrics that offer a newfound sense of contentedness and spiritual calm, either. The group's production has flattened significantly from the first two albums, no longer allowing King's guitars or Prowse's drums to froth over the top like a beer poured from the tap without caution. The tempos have slowed, too -- the title track still blisters and "North East South West" makes you want to grab a hockey stick and rush the ice like the third Sedin twin, but the majority of the album is more early U2 than early Replacements, more open plains than dingy basement. Even the chant-along vocals have chilled, with the howled "OH OH OH OH-OH-OH"s and twenty-two syllable "WOAHHH-AH-OHHH"s from their previous album replaced with Gallagher Bros-like "Yeahhhhhh, yeahhhhhh"s and ghostly "Sha la la la la la"s. The result remains thrilling, but it's a different kind of excitement -- with lower peaks but a wider base, less heart-stopping but also less ephemeral.
On Celebration Rock, the duo began the album asking themselves "Don't we have anything to live for?," answering the question: "Of course we do, but until that comes true -- we're drinking / and we're still smoking." Now, on Wild Heart emotional climax "No Known Drink or Drug," they're testifying that neither of those titular vices "could ever hold a candle to your love" -- not so much an open repudiation of those cheaper early thrills as an unapologetic acknowledgement that they've since located a better deal. The considerable power of Near to the Wild Heart of Life is in its explicit presentation of Japandroids as living proof that those who fear the story of their adult lives will end up as one long ellipsis can still have chapters, even entire books to go. True love and a free life of free will can make the nights of wine and roses last forever.