“It’s a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give/But you’re not mine to die for anymore/So I must live.” On the list of the best lyrics of the decade so far, that one—the most climactic line from the Japandroids’ blistering, cathartic “The House That Heaven Built”—has to be near the top. To me, that line has always been a beautifully apt statement about growing up and moving on. I suppose you could read it as a lyric about a break up, but I prefer to see it as a vow to let go of the things that used to define your life and build new ones in their place.
In a way, that’s exactly what Japandroids are doing on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, their third full-length album and their first in nearly five years. Their last record, 2012’s Celebration Rock, was more appropriately titled than any other album released in the past seven years. Beginning and ending with fireworks, the album raged with pounding guitars, blitzkrieg drums, and shout-along choruses that could put anyone in a party mood. It was an album about being young, staying up all night, making memories with friends, and drinking way more than could feasibly be deemed “necessary.”
Intense, rambunctious, and thoroughly life-affirming, Celebration Rock stands in the rearview as one of the surest classics of its era. Needless to say, following that album up was always going to be a massive hurdle for band members Brian King and David Prowse. Recently, I was assigned an article for a feature called “The One After,” which surveys not a band’s classic defining album, but the one that came after it. Examining how musicians take lightning and put it in a bottle—often by accident—is one of the most interesting tasks that a listener or music critic can take on. Looking at how musicians respond to the pressure of making more art after catching lightning in a bottle is perhaps even more fascinating. After all, we’re told that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.
For Japandroids, the follow-up game was particularly difficult. Celebration Rock excelled by finding a very narrow niche and dialing all of its best qualities up to 11. The core idea of the record—to channel the unrivaled communal power that great rock ‘n’ roll music can have—was straightforward. How the band played the songs—with big drums, bigger guitars, bellowed vocals, and literally nothing else—was also straightforward. So how do you do a follow-up? Do you keep the limited sonic palette and do another eight straight tracks of redemptive barn-burners? Or do you expand the sound, go to different places lyrically, and risk losing what people loved about you in the first place?
Certainly, when I envisioned what a follow-up to Celebration Rock would look like, Near to the Wild Heart of Life was not the record I pictured. Based on the album’s title track, lead single, and opener—which released to the world late last year—I expected an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach this time around. More ferocious drumming, more walls of guitars, more melodies meant for shouting along with at the top of your lungs, and more rock ‘n’ roll clichés made new again by sheer force of will. Even in that song, though, the seeds are sown for the subtle differences to come on this album.
If Celebration Rock was a record that celebrated youth and the absence of responsibility, then Near to the Wild Heart of Life naturally follows along to the next step: growing up. The title of the album is a reference to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, itself a coming of age tale. The title track, then, is the natural mission statement and starting point, beginning with the narrator’s decision to leave his hometown in pursuit of greener pastures. “So I left my home/And all I had/I used to be good but now I’m bad,” King sings at the end of the chorus. Off we go.
The other seven songs that make up Near to the Wild Heart of Life continue the coming-of-age narrative. They take us on a rollicking road trip across America in the radiant “North South East West,” one of the best-ever lead-foot road trip anthems not written by Bruce Springsteen. They romanticize bar life on the seven-plus-minute centerpiece “Arc of Bar,” which makes drinking too much whiskey in scuzzy dives feel like the stuff of epic poetry. And they fall in love. “North South East West” may be a tribute to the glories of the road and the pleasure of wandering aimlessly with “no fixed address to give,” but by the time the album gets to “Midnight to Morning,” the protagonist is yearning for “those yellow lines on the I-5” to bring him back home to the person he loves. It’s not the only song on the album with that kind of message, either. “Midnight to Morning” is an acoustic-driven gem that could feasibly be labeled a ballad, as is early-album triumph “True Love and Free Life and Free Will.” Meanwhile, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” the hypnotic side one closer, finds King confessing “I was looking for you all my life.”
As you can probably see, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is the sound of an older, wiser, more weathered, and more grown-up Japandroids. On first listen, that fact might be disappointing to some longtime fans. Aside from the cigarette-lighter-ready “Continuous Thunder,” Celebration Rock was a ballad-averse record, and you get the sense that listeners liked it that way. I’ve already seen some people on Twitter get up in arms about the presence of acoustic guitar on this record. But the progression is fitting, especially since five years have now passed since Celebration Rock landed in our laps.
When that record dropped, I was in the middle of the summer before my senior year of college. Driving home from my last night of work that summer—and one of my last nights in my hometown—I played “Continuous Thunder” in my car and it felt like the end of a chapter. Eight months later, when my roommates and I had one last party at our apartment before we finished college and left town for good, I played “The House That Heaven Built” on our stereo. Loud. It didn’t matter that it was probably two in the morning and that we were mostly too drunk to function anymore. It didn’t matter that, apart from myself, nobody knew who the hell Japandroids were. That song got people visibly amped up because it was the perfect encapsulation of everything we were feeling as our world started to shift around us. In general, Celebration Rock was a great record for my last year of college parties and deferred responsibility, but it never hit as hard as it did that night, when all of those things were about to come to an end.
It wouldn’t have hit as hard if Japandroids had tried to go back to the same well again, either. You can only romanticize that kind of youthful energy for so long before you start looking like a pretender. Years ago, writing about Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle, I said that while Born to Run “nailed the redemptive escapism of youth,” The Wild, The Innocent was “a record for the moment before that escapism feels necessary.” Celebration Rock and Near to the Wild Heart of Life feel like two albums with a similar relationship. Celebration Rock is all about living life to its fullest, wherever you are and whoever you’re with right now. Near to the Wild Heart of Life is about running away, growing up, gaining perspective and wisdom, and finding the life you want to lead for the long haul. It’s about finding a way to live on when the things and people you would have died for yesterday aren’t there anymore. It’s about finding that fabled “fixed address” King sang about an album ago.
And yet, growing up, finding yourself, and falling in love don’t necessarily constitute the “happily ever after” we’re promised in movies. Life is more complicated and messy than that. The day this album started streaming, Stereogum ran a piece about how listening to Near to the Wild Heart of Life in the midst of our new President’s inauguration week felt wrong. The review basically reduces this record down to “fist-in-the-air music” and suggests that, by not “mak[ing] room for doubt and anxiety and sadness,” the album is at odds with the America we currently live in. I’d argue that Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a perfectly-timed piece of art—a record that reminds us about how glorious life can be in a moment when a lot of people seem to have (understandably) forgotten that fact. And there is sadness and doubt, most of it tucked away in the resilient epilogue of “In a Body Like a Grave.” “Christ will call you out/School will deepen debt/Work will sap the soul/Hometown haunts what’s left/Love will scar the heart/Sun will burn the skin/Just the way it is/And way it’s always been,” Brian King sings in the verse. There are always going to be hardships. Life ain’t easy and it ain’t supposed to be. But the hardships—whether they take the form of romantic disasters or professional failures or our fucking travesty of a federal government—don’t define you. “Remember there’s heaven in the hellest of holes,” King belts out during the hair-raising bridge, along with some other advice that I think we all need to hear right now: “Break the bank like you’re breaking a building”; “Love so hard that time stands still”; “Gather the gang and make that night an ultimatum to the universe: fuck or fight.”
Here’s my advice: buy this album; play it loud; live your life; and if anybody tries to slow you down, you tell ’em all to go to hell.