Following the end of their Celebration Rock tour that finished in November 2013 and lasted 20 months spanning 40 countries, Japandroids stated they would be taking a well-deserved break. Since that message was shared, Brian King and David Prowse said very little publicly. There weren’t any hints nor rumors that they were working on new material. Then almost four years to the day of their sabbatical, they emphatically announced they were back with “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”. The song was one to get excited about, as the Vancouver duo still had the knack for creating anthemic rockers. Yet the track revealed something different about the band. It wasn’t as fierce nor intense as the songs on Celebration Rock. Instead, the song was classic rock ‘n roll, a nod to the great rock albums of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Now that Near To The Wild Heart Of Life has arrived, Japandroids have opened up about the creating their third album, and our initial feelings were confirmed. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is the duo’s attempt to make a great “rock ‘n roll album”. As King mentions in the press release notes, the LP is 8 songs long to follow the “standard template” of seminal records like Led Zeppelin’s IV and Patti Smith’s Horses. To get to this point, the album has been a nearly three-year process with the songwriting taking place through most of 2014 and 2015. The biggest takeaway from King’s comments, however, is his last sentence, which reveals the duo’s thoughts of the past five years and the future to come:
If Celebration Rock was the culmination of something, then Near To The Wild Heart Of Life can be considered the beginning of something else.
That something else is not just one thing, and it extends well beyond Japandroids’ move from a searing blend of post-punk, garage rock, and rock ‘n roll to a classic rock-inspired sound. This new chapter in King and Prowse’s career includes a fuller sound that incorporates multiple layers, including synths and keys. It includes a change in their songwriting style, moving away from single issue-focused songs to creating a concept album. And finally, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is highly introspective, but told through the eyes of the LP’s central, anonymous lead character. When these elements are combined, the result is something that is memorable.
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is unquestionably a thoughtful album with every detail meticulously examined and perfected. The arc of the album (i.e., the arrangement of the songs), too, has been done with purpose, not just sonically but also thematically. The album’s fiery and explosive title track introduces us to a person trying to escape one’s hometown and the past. It is the spirit of James Dean reincarnated – a well-mannered, young man who becomes a rebel and leaves town. Yet despite all the roads traveled across the globe, one always returns home, and this message is shared on the smooth rocker, “North East South West”. The track is as much a story about leaving home as it is an intimate reflection of King and Prowse’s 20-month road adventure and their love for their country.
The lessons learned on this endless journey are shared on “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”. It is one part a love song to those left behind as the character pursues his dream. It is another part a message to oneself about why the journey must be taken. The song is Japandroids at their most intimate and honest. Where the duo go against their garage-rock roots is on the soaring, coming-of-age tune, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”. Beneath the shimmering keys, static, and Prowse’s rhythmic pacing, King whispers, “I’ve been looking for your all my life”. But who is he seeking? A feeling of remorse overcomes the song, and we realize that the protagonist is experiencing another change.
“Arc of Bar” kicks off “Side B” of the record. Like a convergence of Bruce Springsteen and Robert Palmer, Japandroids share a gritty yet hypnotic, synth-driven number. This is the awakening; the emergence of the central character from the carnage of the past. The euphoria of the new adventure is revealed on “Midnight To Morning”, a song which bleeds of a late-night drive as one races home to the ones he love. It is the realization that the answers to one’s life questions are at the place from where one originally tried to escape. This track is unlike anything King and Prowse have previously created – a song that leaves a smile on your face.
The duo channel the ’80s on “No Known Drink Or Drug”. Like much of the songs of that era, this track is simultaneously calming yet searing. The music perfectly complements the story of a person settling into a domestic life, but the sense of adventure still eats away inside him. An understanding – the truth – overwhelms him, knowing that this new life is surprisingly rewarding. The album’s finale, “In A Body Like A Grave”, the duo’s songwriting maturation is showcased, as the song possesses some of the band’s best lyrics to date. The juxtaposition of heaven and hell to question whether one has lived his life to the fullest is brilliant. No answer is given, but the song’s riddle is more directed at us the listener than the album’s protagonist.
The depth in King and Prowse’s songwriting and musical palette is what makes Near To The Wild Heart Of Life a triumph. The album matches the sonic intensity of Springsteen’s Born To Run and Television’s Marquee Moon. Their songwriting, however, reaches another level, specifically the sweeping narration of Neil Young and the lyrical poignancy of David Byrne. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, as such, is not just a great record; it likely will be one others will try to replicate in the future.
Featured photo by Leigh Righton.
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