Sometimes you can judge a garage rock album by its cover. Rock duo Japandroids have long opted for short, punchy album titles. The duo made their 2009 major label debut with the decisively named Post-Nothing, followed it up the next year with the similarly bold No Singles, a compilation of their limited-run EPs and then released Celebration Rock in 2012. Japandroids’ titles underscored their music: unadorned, fuzzed-out, straight-to-the-point rock tracks about Vancouver, traveling around and awkward love in your 20-somethings. As such, the title of the duo’s 2017 release — Near To The Wild Heart Of Life — signaled a change to longtime listeners.
For context, Japandroids broke out during a mid-naughts surge of what might be deemed Bruce Springsteen revivalism. Bands like Titus Andronicus, The Gaslight Anthem and The Menzingers started churning out populist, anthemic tracks about hometown bars, hometown sports teams and, well, really hometown anything. Although Japandroids formed far from the Rust Belt that spawned many of their contemporaries, their motifs weren’t all that different: a full-throated singer with a score to settle, throbbing guitar parts in no way lacking distortion and drums pushed up in the mix.
Part of what made the music of this Springsteen-esque resurgence so exciting was its easy translatability. When Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles screams about getting ready to “yell like hell for the glory of the Newark Bears,” many listeners can pencil in their favorite hometown team that they loved for few other reasons than the fact that the team was simply there, making something to root for on a weekend night (For me it was the Tri-City ValleyCats, thanks for asking).
Yet, another critical reason why the subgenre of homegrown, rootsy punk worked was that many groups understood that they had to cut their full-throttle anthems with something else. Titus Andronicus’ 2010 The Monitor, for example, provides a master class in weaving in a variety of styles and elements to give the listener something other than pure hometown pride. The Monitor opens with two adrenaline-charged tracks — “A Most Perfect Union” and “Titus Andronicus Forever” — that hook the listener and establish the album’s main theme: the U.S. Civil War. Yet after the chants of “the enemy is everywhere” that run through “Titus Andronicus Forever” die down, Titus Andronicus makes a complete 180 to “No Future Part Three,” which finds Stickles mewling over a stripped-down and drawn-out guitar track which eventually speeds up and tumbles into a boisterous chant of its own, but the break gives the listener a chance to catch their breath before the next crescendo.
Early on in their career, Japandroids also practiced the art of deftly balancing out the raw force of tracks like “The Boys Are Leaving Town” and “Wet Hair.” Coming to the close of Post-Nothing, for example, Japandroids had already charged ahead with a half-hour of crunching rock. Yet, the duo pulls the album to a full stop with “I Quit Girls.” For the first 40 seconds, the listener hears nothing but Brian King’s distorted-to-death guitar slamming out chords. A little past the track’s halfway mark, David Prowse enters on drums, but the song has already been solidified as a head-bangin’ meditation of a track. “I Quit Girls” constitutes a clever album cadence while still viscerally sludging right up to the end.
Yet, in an album that is supposedly getting nearer to the “wild heart of life,” Japandroids’ latest release feels notably superficial and complacent. The rough, mumbling fuzz that distinguished Post-Nothing and No Singles has been buffed down to a sheen. Whereas tracks on the duo’s previous albums flew by, a number of tracks on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life plod by, especially “North East South West” and “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”. The latter track feels like Japandroids’ attempt to fill out Wild Heart Of Life with another “I Quit Girls”-esque track. Yet, whereas “I Quit Girls” thrived on tension and unpredictably, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” simply feels repetitive and interminable, even though it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long.
In the end, the raw energy that characterized Post Nothing, No Singles and Celebration Rock has ceded to a malaise that pervades glossed-over, drawn-out tracks in Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. Rather than shaking up their modus operandi, Japandroids solidified their style, churning out 36 minutes of decent, but nearly indistinguishable tracks.
Shay Collins is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].