Japandroids’ ‘Near to the Heart of Life’ (Jan. 2017)

Often in modern punk-leaning music there is something uncanny that happens to band’s sound as its members age: distortion is lessened, tempos are slowed, production values skyrocket, and as a result manic youthful angst is subdued. For fans, this process can be polarizing. Where some see maturity and refinement others see boredom and dulled-edges. On Japandroids’ Wild Heart of Life, the fine line between the two is walked precariously, often with less than captivating results.

On their fourth album and first release since 2012’s Celebration Rock, the garage-punk duo of Brian King and David Prowse aim as usual at youthful punk rock anthems. These are longer than your usual punk tracks but still more or less conventionally structured with fairly lyrically detailed verses that set up hook-heavy choruses. “And it got me all fired up/to go far away/I used to be good but now I’m bad,” sings King in each of 3 choruses of the album’s title track opener, a song that initially lands its intended dramatic effect but doesn’t vary in style or intensity enough to stay interesting for its full five minutes.

Next up is “North East South West”, a Springsteen-esque ode to life on the road that also suffers from repetition and despite some decent verse lyrics (“Coast of California/the highway high
Noise/narcotics/and the New York night”) doesn’t quite manage to musically capture the strung out-but-still-kicking energy implied by its subject matter.

The album’s third track “True Love and a Free Life of Freewill”, introduces a more laid back, almost power-ballad pace but remains so melodically similar to the first two songs that it’s hard to feel like anything really new is being brought to the table. It is followed however, by “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”, a brief, static filled track that doesn’t bother with an overused verse-chorus pattern and feels like a nice pallet cleanser at the center of the record.

“Arc of Bar” which lasts nearly 7 and a half minutes is another clear attempt at an epic but unfortunately falls a bit flat. The last few minutes of the song do come close to the stadium level intensity that it aims for, but the time spent getting there just doesn’t seem quite worth it. The chorus of the song, to which the lyrics are literally just “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” feels phoned-in and hopelessly cliché. “Midnight to Morning” and “No Known Drink or Drug”, despite the latter at least making an attempt at punkish energy, both still feel a bit lackluster.

The album’s closing track, “In a Body like a Grave” is easily one of its best. An effects driven swirl of sound gives way to strumming guitar that provides an excellent template for King’s lyrics: “Christ will call you out/School will deepen debt/Work will sap the soul/Hometown haunts what’s left.” Here, when the band is honestly reflecting on the life they’ve lived so far instead of haphazardly trying to recapture the energy of their younger years, their age feels more like a blessing than a curse.

Viewed as a whole, this record isn’t necessarily bad. Lyrically and thematically it provides a pretty cohesive look at the way in which the passions of youth burn out over time. There is even a progression of this theme from the album’s beginning to its end, with the firsts few songs focusing on a lifestyle of vice and abandon, the next few on love and loss, and the final song acting as a thoughtful conclusion. The main problem that Near to the Wild Heart faces, however, is a failure to make each individual song truly interesting. Repetitive structures and melodies combined with long run times and a general lack of energy undermine the emotional power this record could’ve had, resulting in album that ultimately fails to meet its potential.

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