Japandroids, often hailed as Vancouver’s hottest rock ‘n’ roll duo, have returned from yet another victory lap since their triumphant, make-or-break debut Post-Nothing. Near to the Wild Heart of Life [Wild Heart] is Japandroids third full-length album and rips with the same intensity Brian King (guitar / vocals) and David Prowse (drums / vocals) are known for. Not much has changed; from day one Japandroids have been about capturing the feeling of being born to run in a city that’s bound to rain, plummeting from apex to nadir and back again.
While Japandroids music used to create fireworks with next to nothing, Wild Heart brings a wider array of production tools and arrangements. The same colourful guitar lines exist as before but are now punctuated by synths (“True Love and a Free Life of Free Will”), samples (“Arc of Bar”), and acoustic guitars (“North East South West”). Bells and whistles adorn songs but without the addition of instrumental staples, such as bass, to even it out. The new additions tip the mix away from the warm midrange of their previous sound and towards a sunlit, trebly glare. While these sounds don’t enable the band to reach previous peaks as high as “Young Hearts Spark Fire” or “Evil’s Sway,” they nonetheless feel like suitable embroidery for the altitude.
Like Celebration Rock, Wild Heart drives through the heartland of rock. But now, jocular punchlines have given way to tragically heroic narratives. Life, love, and free will are barely within reach as King and Prowse rage against the dying of the light. Throughout the album, bars become biblical in proportion, and bodies seem like graves when confronted with age. Despite the success of this lyrical maturity, these familiar narratives veer dangerously close to melodrama.
This revamped, heavy-handed lyricism has a tendency to blunt the listening experience. Lacking a sharp Replacements-esque wit, Japandroids neglect to cut through a layer of Bruce Springsteen like pomp. With lines like “Under starless skies of fire, into great unknown / Living on the lam and the frontier of / A free life of free will for the thrill of your love,” Wild Heart is ripe with spectacular operatics and the imagery is flush with purple hue of nostalgia, “Work will sap the soul / Hometown haunts what’s left / Love will scar the heart.” But with all these rock clichés about drinking, growing up, and falling in love abound, it can be hard to take such a self-serious album … well, seriously.
And yet, like The Boss, to level a criticism of melodrama at Japandroids’ high concept rock n’ roll misses the point. Grandiosity of poetic device and image is part of ride, and that sure as hell doesn’t make it any less true. If you’re cruising anywhere near to the Wild Heart of Life “amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters,” irony and triviality fly out the window. So go ahead, dime the amplifiers and, to quote from the same titular Joycean text, “forge in the smithy of the soul.”