In 2013, Japandroids were on top of the world. The Vancouver-based rock duo had released their second album, “Celebration Rock,” to widespread critical acclaim the prior year and wrapped up a 200-show world tour in November. Their two albums, both eight-track affairs that clocked in at 35 minutes each, captivated the world of indie music – and it’s easy to see why. Their brand of hard rock – melded together the lyrical bombast and guitar heroics of classic rock and the raw, nervous energy of punk – grabs you with an immediacy not often seen in modern rock; they struck a balance between the mumbling insecurities of indie folksters and the bloated pretension of the U2’s and Coldplays of the world. In short, Japandroids were poised to be the next big thing, if they weren’t there already.
And then: nothing.
From their November 2013 announcement that it was “time for us to disappear into the ether for a while” to the announcement of a limited, six-venue tour in August 2016, Japandroids were silent. No Facebook posts, no Tweets, no secret shows or guest appearances – not even any interviews to explain the disappearance itself. In a hyper-exposed cultural world where even recluses like Frank Ocean can’t escape the all-seeing eye of social media in the long interims between albums, Japandroids pulled off a rare vanishing act.
On their third album, “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life,” Japandroids sound like a band that’s had some time to think. Things aren’t radically different – the album’s only two minutes longer than the first two and boasts the same number of tracks, and guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse haven’t let any outside musicians into their duo – yet “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” stands apart from Japandroids’ earlier work as feeling far more expansive, for better or for worse.
The first two Japandroids albums never slowed down. Even on their ballads, like “Celebration Rock” closer “Continuous Thunder,” the guitars and drums kept up a constant barrage of sound, never letting up on the listener. Their energy – the sort of energy that lets you play 200 shows in five continents over two years, but also the sort of energy that leaves you exhausted afterwards – was their greatest weapon. Yet on their third, Japandroids seem to intentionally tame that breakneck energy, finding more varied artistic territory as a result.
The album’s titular opening track is the closest to a standard Japandroids song, an ode to finding your dreams on the road and escaping the confines of home that’s fueled by King’s driving power chords and Prowse’s galloping drums. Yet the remaining seven tracks of the album seem to take the first’s admonitions about getting “fired up to go far away” as a stylistic command, rather than a geographical one. Over the remaining half hour of the album, King and Prowse play songs that break out of that traditional Japandroids in small but significant ways, from the acoustic balladry of “North South East West” and “Midnight to Morning” to the prog-rock pomp and circumstance of the album’s seven-minute-long centerpiece “Arc of Bar,” based around a glitched-out synthesizer loop. Not all of these experiments work – “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” feels like it never really finds a rhythm over its short, two-minute run time – but when they stick, it’s something revelatory.
Take “True Love and A Life of Free Will,” the album’s third track. Its sound harkens back to “Continuous Thunder,” with its majestic, rolling drums and guitars, but where that track simply seemed to build to cacophony, repeating the same riff and the same lines over and over again like desperate mantras, “True Love” has more to say, weaving a tale of “cigarettes, sorcery and Biblical sins” that builds to a simple, effective climax. It’s the most fully realized of all of the band’s ballads, richer in storytelling, emotion and sonic depth than anything they’ve done before.
In short, “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” is Japandroids’ least consistent album, in both quality and form. It never reaches the sustained sort of peak that “Celebration Rock” found in its final four songs, but on tracks like “True Love and A Life of Free Will” and “Arc of Bar,” Prowse and King reach fitful moments of glory that outshine, or at least equal, the highest points of that record. And even when their ideas don’t quite work, Japandroids are a band of enough spirit to keep you wanting more.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.