After almost five years of studio silence, Canadian rockers Japandroids return with a follow-up to their critically-acclaimed sophomore LP, 2012’s Celebration Rock. The band’s bare-faced rock ‘n roll foundation, recalling the likes of rock legends like Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, was paired with diverse influences from punk, ranging from American heroes Ramones to infamous British anarcho-punk ringleaders Crass. This record also featured a distinct inspiration from many trends in modern rock music, from standard indie rock to more experimental derivates of the genre, like noise rock. Despite sounding very appealing on paper, I personally found that the execution on their last album was a bit too safe, making for some rather lukewarm results. Nonetheless, I completely understand Japandroids’ appeal; throwing so many styles of contemporary rock music into a blender is bound to draw in fans from a lot of different scenes, and I saw potential for the duo to refine and focus their sound more in the future as to create an overall more interesting project. On Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, the group have in some ways matured as an act, but to varying degrees of success. This record feels like a more concentrated and straightforward rock record and the pair come through with some catchy songs on this thing, however at times, the worship of certain rock traditions is so prominent that the band lack as much of the musical identity that they had worked towards on their last two albums. I can see this potentially being off-putting to some fans, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a handful of satisfying rock standards on their third record, even if they don’t quite keep pace with their previous endeavours stylistically.
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life gets off to a strong start with the opening title track. The song demonstrates a more tailored sound than that which featured on Celebration Rock, sounding more like a standard modern alternative rock song than the jumble of different sounds on their last effort. Following a rather simple structure, the song feels relatively better off for it, with the catchy vocal melody over the chorus all the more satisfying when you know it’s coming. This is certainly a singalong that would go down well at a live show to get people fired up, which is apt given Brian King’s triumphant vocals as he belts out “I got fired up to go far away”. Understandably, some Japandroids fans may not be as pleased with this more rudimentary sound, but the duo play it off well on this first track, making this slight change of pace seem justified.
Many of the other seven tracks on the record retain a pretty much identical stylistic and structural arrangement to the first song, but none of these songs stand out quite as much as the first cut. North East South West certainly comes close to having a chorus that excites the listener as much as the title track, but here, the simpler melody doesn’t pay off as well, with Japandroids sounding less like themselves than usual. However, as the second chorus peters out and the song sounds as if it’s coming to an end, the drums bring the piece back into a slowed-down rendition of the song that is very rewarding, giving the track a slight bit of edge over some of the other cuts on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will attempts to come off as somewhat anthemic, but the results are debatable. King’s vocal line on the verse of this track sounds rather similar to that of the track previous, so it already doesn’t catch the listener’s attention like an anthem track should. The drumming on the tom toms adds a slightly different flavour to this track compared to its predecessor, however, and certainly carries a slight air of an anthem, but the piece never quite reaches the level of inspiration and excitement that one would hope from a track like this.
I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner) gets off to a promising start, and teases a song more in the vain of what some Japandroids fans would be hoping for. The gritty guitar melody that fades into the track sounds great and complements King’s distorted and echoed vocals when they swoop in. Again, the heavy tom-based drumming opens up space in the track for the duo to really take it somewhere. The track continues to build up, with the echoey drumming creeping up on the listener as it gradually gets more and more involved in the piece. The song really feels like it’s going somewhere, but the fact that it’s still building up two minutes into the two and a half minute runtime didn’t bode well for a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, the song seemingly just stops rather abruptly, just at the point where it felt like the band were going to go into a gratifying pay-off for all that build up. Even as I could see the track coming closer and closer to finishing, I was hoping that it was intended to be used as an introduction to the next track, with the climax leading into the beginning of Arc Of Bar, but the song just disappointingly dwindles out after such a promising build-up.
Arc Of Bar, although not being led into as I hoped it would be by the previous song, starts off promisingly with some fuzzy synth leads that sound great and provide the foundation for the piece. The straightforward drumming and guitar chord sequence are pretty standard for rock music, but with this synth lead acting as the song’s bedrock, it’s incredibly enjoyable. Then again, I was initially slightly apprehensive as to how Japandroids would continue to yield satisfying results across the entirety of this track’s seven and a half minute runtime. Initially, the track progressed as one would expect a simple three-minute rock song to progress, with a simple “yeah yeah” chorus and the drums becoming gradually more indulgent during subsequent verses. As the song pushes past the three-minute mark and moves into the third chorus, the fluttering synths that work their way into the mix sound nice, but at this point of the song, the band don’t seem to have justified the song’s length just yet. This song’s bridge is rather typical, essentially just being another verse but with the instrumentation taking a break before building up again. Whilst the final chorus features some added vocals that go down well, I can’t help but feel this whole track would have fared much better if it were considerably condensed. Japandroids take a long time to get to the point on this song, so the seven and a half minute runtime doesn’t seem justified at all and seems like a very questionable decision when the structure of this composition could have easily been worked into a more satisfying and practical four minutes. This track still stands out to me amongst the others on the record, but it almost feels like a track to which the listener is not intended to pay full attention, which is an awful shame because the underlying idea here is a solid one.
Ultimately, on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, Japandroids come together with a product featuring a handful of relatively catchy and simple songs that may be perfectly enjoyable to the average alternative rock fan, but there is a notable lack of substance to some of the material on here. The less interesting tracks simply feel like a much of a muchness, but the highlights on here do demonstrate a great potential for this record that I, unfortunately, see as not being fully realised by the pair. Whilst a generally pleasing record overall, there is nevertheless a lot to be desired from this new project.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10