When “Celebration Rock” came out in 2012, it was something of a revelation. Right as the alternative rock scene started to pivot towards more mellow, relaxed sounds like Beach House and Mac Demarco, Japandroids put out a genuinely good classic rock album. The guitars had the right amount distortion, the drums the right amount of frantic energy, and lead singer, Brian King, had just the right amount of edge in his voice. When everyone else in music started to hit the breaks, thinking the world would just “chill out” as it ushered in Barack Obama’s second term, Japandroids was there, reminding everyone great music still needed a desperation to it that would be found lacking in the future. Unfortunately, Japandroids’ latest album, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” misses that same urgency.
The album, and the first song on it, take their name from a line in James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” the album starts off with promise. Like the novel, the album deals with traveling and only being at peace after leaving what is familiar. The song, titled “North East South West,” details the band’s travels, although somewhat simplistically, and the song “Arc of Bar” serves as an ode to the city of New Orleans.
Unfortunately, instead of coming off as a rocker’s anthem, or a kick-ass soundtrack to travel the country to, the album sounds cheesy. Japandroids used cliches in their music before, but King’s voice gave them enough sincerity and edge that the lyrics didn’t seem pedestrian. On “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” though, that rocker’s energy is lacking.
The lyrics, which were never the band’s strong suit, took a dive on the new album. The songs use useless platitudes rather than anything inspiring and sincere, and with their new cleaner sound, Japandroids lost what once made them special.
“Near to the Wild Heart of Life” is only eight tracks long, but the few songs outstay their welcome. The album peaks during the start, and everything that follows is just dull compared to the titular song. “North East South West” runs over eight minutes long, and nothing about the song warrants that long of a run time. The song “No Known Drink or Drug” provides a small respite from the doldrum, but not enough to make up for everything that came before.
The album ends with “In a Body Like a Grave,” which is as good an ending as could be asked for on this album. It’s fine enough, if pretty bland, and most of the song is just repeating the title. Its emblematic of the entire album, and just leaves the taste of disappointment on the tongue. Instead of listening to this album, just go listen to Celebration Rock again. It hits all the same notes, but just executed better.