Undoubtedly, Japandroids ignored the narrative surrounding the trajectory of modern indie rock. After a decade that found nearly every music publication running a “hot take” on the death of rock, or at least guitar-centric music, the Vancouver-duo put out successive albums Post-Nothing (2009) and Celebration Rock (2012) that worshipped the lamented era of rock superstardom. Their larger-than-life anthemic songs centered on the kind of hedonism singularly depicted in the VH1 Behind the Music documentary, embellished by brief moments of moody, slow introspection (“Crazy/Forever,” “Continuous Thunder”).
With lead vocalist and guitarist Brian King moving to Toronto and drummer David Prowse remaining in Vancouver, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life was at least partially written and tracked with the band in some form of separation. This is immediately reminiscent of the mail exchanges that would become one of the most beloved indie-pop albums of all time in Give Up. The Postal Service saw Ben Gibbard experimenting with a style other than his more popular project Death Cab for Cutie, Near To also sees Japandroids adding synths and acoustic guitars to the opportunistic maximalism that they developed over their first two records with just drum and electric guitar. Beyond that, the comparison ends there. While it’s a bold move for a band to veer from a cultish-beloved sound, the experimental ambitions Japandroids present fall mostly flat in what is a singles album with some gaudy filler.
The title track starts the record, borrowing from the band’s established form of crackling verses and incendiary pop-punk choruses. This is followed with a sharp turn in “North South East West,” a power-pop song with an acoustic guitar riff nearly identical to Fountains of Wayne’s “Little Red Light” (Welcome Interstate Managers 2004). The first half of the song is one of Near To’s most legitimately catchy moments (despite some well worn Bruce Springsteen-on-the-road-Americana lyrics), before coming to a drum pause and shift to the shiny gang-vocals luster made for the next indie-rock Kia commercial. Side A even closes with a low-key excellent slow-burning track in “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” which ends with delicately textured lo-fi vocals and guitars. It’s the album’s best use of airy synth, stopping just when it seems it gets started, like a great side-closer should (see Celebration Rock’s “Continuous Thunder”).
It’s on Side B that head-scratching begins. At nearly seven and a half minutes, “Arc of Bar” is the longest song on the record, and it takes all of Prowse and King’s worst ideas and crams them into a power ballad, the end result as self-serious as Adriana and Chris’s post-grunge band in The Sopranos episode “A Hit is a Hit.”
The album closes on the epilogic “In A Body Like A Grave.” The title is a reference Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Lady, with a Guitar,” a love poem about Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the narrator is the servant spirit Ariel. It’s a poem full of swelling metaphor about rebirth and eternal obedience that stands in as a meta-statement of sorts on the band’s rebirth and perhaps obedience to rock and roll and love as a whole. While subtlety was never a romantic’s strong suit (nor is avoiding melodrama) the charm can wear off with opening lines like “Christ will call you out! / School will deepen dead!” and the god awful “Hustlers, whores / in rooms galore!”
Four years is by no means the longest break for a band, but in today’s music climate it can seem like an eternity: just look at the hype surrounding LCD Soundsystem’s reunion after being broken up for the same amount of time. For that reason, the over-heightened anticipation could unfairly set an artist up to fail and Near to the Wild Heart of Life certainly has its moments. But when you take five years to write eight songs, maybe it’s fair to expect more.