A Portrait of the Artist as a Thirtysomething Man
Japandroids are a band that thrives on the edge. They nearly broke up before their first full-length album, 2009’s Post-Nothing, could even see the light of day. Then, after wrapping a massive tour behind their masterpiece follow-up, 2012’s Celebration Rock, they disappeared altogether for nearly three years. Now, with Near to the Wild Heart of Life, band members Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals) are back with an eye toward sustainability, both in music and their personal lives.
Named after an iconic quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Near to the Wild Heart of Life picks up where Joyce left off, with the protagonist leaving his stifling hometown behind on the title track. As the most traditional Japandroids song on the album, it’s a perfect starting point for long-time fans, not to mention a powerful anthem for aspiring musicians with its battle cry to get “fired up to go far away and make some ears ring from the sound of my singing.”
It’s followed by “North East South West,” which details the resulting journey while paying tribute to the various locales in which the album was written and recorded (New Orleans, Vancouver, Toronto, New York City, Montreal, Mexico City, and Bridgeport, CT). It’s here where the band really begins to shed their past selves. A prominent acoustic guitar underscores King’s electric throughout, giving the song a distinct Tom Petty vibe. It’s the most successful experiment on the record, providing the blueprint for a Japandroids 2.0 in which the accelerator is occasionally allowed to slip off the floor. It’s also the first glimpse we get into the band’s new mindset, with King admitting that “north, east, south, west, coast to coast, it ain’t shit compared to loving you.”
“Arc of Bar,” an allusion to the city of New Orleans, is the next big departure: a 7-minute-plus, synth-driven rumination on the band’s time in the Big Easy that occasionally recalls Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Discontent begins to seep into King’s lyrics here, recalling “hustlers, whores, in rooms galore. A sinking city’s stink.” Later, in a parallel to Joyce’s novel, he gives in to lust with a woman who is “to some, a mistress. To some, a muse” and immediately regrets the decision, blaming “the arc of bar and the hundred proof in me.” It’s about as far as you can get from the band’s previous invitations to “yell like hell to the heavens,” detailing the inevitable comedown from “The Nights of Wine and Roses.”
Unfortunately, “Arc of Bar” fails to build or evolve enough to justify its epic length, and its lead-in, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” is the very definition of filler. At only two-and-a-half minutes in length, it’s the album’s shortest and least dynamic song, offering only four lines of lyrics to go with its heavily distorted vocals and shoegaze-y drone.
However, the record kicks back in to high gear with “No Known Drink or Drug,” another more traditional Japandroids song that nonetheless betrays the band’s search for a sustainable romance rather than just another one night stand. Amidst a slow-burning wave of distorted guitar, pounding drums, and Prowse’s backing “sha na nas,” King details an aimless night in France on which he met “a cool, hard beauty, christened with composure” and embarked on “a slow-burning sermon to have and hold her.” It all builds to King’s declaration that “no known drink, no known drug, could ever hold a candle to your love,” the culmination of the band’s former rallying cry, “Don’t we have anything to live for? Well of course we do, but until they come true, we’re drinking.” It’s a powerful moment in which the band’s discography comes full circle, paving the way for the next phase of their career to begin.
The pieces are in place for another Japandroids masterpiece in the years ahead. The band introduces a new sense of dynamics throughout Near to the Wild Heart of Life that will serve them well going forward, and the addition of synths and acoustic guitar to the mix largely works well. (Cut two or three minutes off “Arc of Bar,” and the track would become the album’s pièce de résistance.) Nonetheless, the album remains a stepping stone toward a new era for the band, with its flaws illuminating a bright path forward for one of rock’s most exciting acts.
“Near to the Wild Heart of Life”
“North East South West”
“No Known Drink or Drug”