Album: Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Audience: Old fans looking for the next adventure.
Bottom Line: Great continuation of Celebration Rock but not a great introduction for new fans.
Stand Out Songs: No Known Drink or Drug… (Honestly, that’s it. What do you expect from a band with an album called No Singles? Answer: not a lot of good singles.)
Japandroids peaked, and now I’m sad.
Lead singer (and guitarist in the duo) Brian King insists on the title track, “I used to be good / but now I’m bad.” It’s the kind of cliche that fans are tempted to use as a descriptor for the album as a whole. Fans of Japandroid’s older work are sure to lament the urgency King’s voice used to have, the raw guitar, and punchy bass drum found on earlier albums. It’s not that the new album is bad necessarily, but it doesn’t live up to expectations. Near to the Wild Heart of Life is an album of disjointed intentions. Produced for a different crowd than it’s thematically aimed at, it doesn’t hold up to the standards set by Celebration Rock and Post-Nothing.
The crunchy raw guitar and gut-punch drums can still be found—albeit much deeper into the record than many listeners are likely to get—but the polish of professional studio production hasn’t been kind to the Vancouver-based duo. The ever-increasing pace of audio technology seems to encourage bands to polish their music more and more in an effort to make it sound “right” rather than great. Japandroids wrote an album thematically aimed at car stereos and whatever crappy speaker your friend’s thrown in the back seat; but the album’s been produced for reference monitor speakers, and pro headphones. It’s true that the nuances of Near to the Wild Heart of Life are readily available to the discerning audiophile listening on high-end equipment but that’s hardly the intent of the album. Near to the Wild Heart of Life, then, is an album aimed at new fans. Fans who care about production quality, who care about things like sound-stages and vocal balance. The problem is, Japandroids isn’t the kind of band that has or encourages fans like this. Japandroids is a band for people who really don’t care about pristine production, audio fidelity, and polished, nuanced tracks. This gap between the intended audience (the kind of people who listen to Japandroids) and the the kind of people receptive to the new production style results in an odd album.
Old fans are sure to be happy with parts of the album: “No Known Drink or Drug” is a standout single that puts the title track to shame. “In a Body Like A Grave” will reward old fans that stick around to listen to the album’s conclusion with typical Japandroids hyperbolic similes and over-the-top statements. It’s a rewarding listen to fans looking to see where the band is going next, but doesn’t seem to hold the same charm for first-time listeners. To make the bottom line clear: I’d encourage non-fans to skip Near to the Wild Heart of Life start with Celebration Rock. That’s the kind of album this is. Old fans will tell you something about appreciating a band’s progress, sticking with them as they develop and change. Old fans will tell you that band’s shouldn’t have to stay the same. They’re right. But to people just discovering Japandroids: Start at the beginning.