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The Transcendent Corniness of Japandroids

On ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life,’ one of the best pure rock ’n’ roll albums of the decade

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

You’re smarter than this. More sophisticated and discerning. You prize music that challenges, that surprises, that rejects the cheap comforts of nostalgia, that refuses to pander to your basest instincts. No way are you falling for yet another cornball Japandroids song, all cheesy distorted guitars and yelpy self-help vocals and beer-lit classic rock romanticism. It’s too easy. It’s too simple. It’s the same half-dozen ingredients shrewdly recombined: the Taco Bell menu in sonic form, a mild riot of empty calories.

And yet.

Get a load of “No Known Drink or Drug,” from the Vancouver duo’s new album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, out this Friday and streaming for free via NPR now. (Get a load of the album title Near to the Wild Heart of Life, while you’re at it.) It’s three minutes and change of the same four chords and change, breathless and exuberant, singer-guitarist Brian King’s vocals lovestruck and pie-eyed and not a little silly. He sketches out a slacker’s idyll …

… that flourishes even amid Canada’s subzero chill:

It’s probably dominoes, as in the popular tile-based game, but Domino’s is way funnier, and these fellas probably eat a lot of pizza, too. Anyway, there’s a special lady! “A whirlwind, a woman, and a famous feelin’,” to be precise. King is too polite to detail his seductive techniques, which are successful, and combine a true believer’s zeal with a 17-year-old’s proto-hornball vernacular:

Each verse triggers a ghostly refrain of “Sha-na-na-na-na / Sha-na-na-na-na-naaah,” by the way. Drummer David Prowse keeping a thumping, nervous beat, maximizing then minimizing. It’s not hard to guess what’s coming. When King runs out of verses and a long, boisterous drum roll fills the vacuum, it’s definitely not hard to guess what’s coming. But the exuberant force of it still bowls you over, the guitar distortion quadrupled, the drums in full arena-rock gallop, the chorus easy and simple and silly and elemental:

They might’ve gone with lighter over candle, as that’s the song’s clear intent. (Smartphone lighter app would probably be more timely, but that screws up the meter.) Anyways, this song owns. It’s shocking despite being not the least bit surprising; it does absolutely nothing new and still leaves you feeling like a different, superior human. It is the sound of your heart punting your liver into your brain. This band is mad corny. This band also totally rules.

A new Japandroids album is, functionally, the Rock Critic Super Bowl. Their appeal is broad, and vast, and universal, but they make use of very specific core elements beloved by very specific types of people. Specifically, those elements include the DIY scruffiness of dorm-room indie rock, the shambolic ebullience of dive-bar rock, and the absurd grandeur of stadium rock. A diary, a pitcher of beer, a Marshall stack stretching heavenward. Boyish but never macho. Sensitive and exhilarated. The best song on their debut album, 2009’s rough and blustery and cheerfully tuneless Post-Nothing, is called “Heart Sweats.”

You can get this sort of thing — guitar god theatrics from mere mortals with new ideas but old souls, muscular yet wistful, devoted to rhapsodizing a past so recent it might as well be the present — from lots of places, from plenty of bands B.C. and A.D. Brooklyn-via-Minnesota kingpins the Hold Steady, who ruled the first decade of the 2000s, tend to sound like listening to classic rock radio and an especially talky podcast simultaneously. In 2010, New Jersey ruffians Titus Andronicus uncorked The Monitor, an even drunker and punkier and messier and more grandiose assault that remains the best album of our young century, but let’s talk about that some other time. More recently, Beach Slang did the gutter-angel, nostalgic-for-the-present, replacements-for–the Replacements thing quite well. Almost too well.

But Japandroids’ breakout album, 2012’s Celebration Rock, was very much the same in a way that felt radically different — the rebirth of something that had never quite died, a phoenix building castle-size man caves out of its own ashes. The last song that owned as hard as “No Known Drink or Drug” was Celebration Rock’s peak, “The House That Heaven Built.”

The chorus — ”When they love you, and they will / Tell ’em all they’ll love in my shadow” — doesn’t wait nearly as long to uncork itself this time, but the tactics and the weaponry are familiar. Earnest repetition = eventual transcendence. Celebration Rock is only eight songs (including a surly Gun Club cover), but it felt like a universe entire, its refrains bombastic and elemental (Oh yeah! All right!). It was all a little ridiculous and a lot fantastic. The nearly five-year layoff thereafter was just long enough to give it a mythical quality, to stoke further nostalgia, to make fans worry that they’d lost it and wouldn’t even try to get it back. Near to the Wild Heart of Life has at least two songs that prove otherwise. Here’s the other one.

Just an early live version for now, but the visuals are instructive: the sweaty minimalism, the galvanizing imperfections. “Arc of Bar” is something else, man. There’s a malfunctioning-robot loop running underneath it, which is new; at nearly seven and a half minutes, it’s practically a Tolstoy novel in this context, and it reads like one, too. First verse:

This is a Weird Twitter parody of Bob Dylan, delivered totally straight, building up to a chorus of “Yeah / Yeah / Yeah / Yeah.” Your first instinct is to maybe smirk a little, to overthink that they’ve overthought it. But the wordy verses and one-word choruses keep piling up, gathering weight and momentum. An avalanche of boozy feels. It is very, very hard to construct something this monolithic out of parts this basic. Verily, this song owns, also.

The new record is, once again, a mere eight songs, with “No Known Drink or Drug” in the coveted, climactic Track 7 spot occupied last time by “The House That Heaven Built.” Not that this is crucial information. Turns out the Rock Critic Super Bowl has fairly universal appeal, full of goofy and propulsive sing-alongs that welcome both earnest and ironic fist-pumps, the experience rewarding whether you’re familiar with the 50-plus old bands being evoked here or you’ve successfully endeavored to avoid all of them. The sense of wonder here is all-inclusive. If there’s a third all-time banger on this thing, it’s the ludicrously titled “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will,” slower and grander, built sturdily on windmilling power chords, the chorus further bolstered by some delay-pedal-sounding action, like a fax machine gazing wistfully off into the middle distance, the effect pure U2.

Classic U2 is an instructive parallel here. Those guys will spend this summer revisiting their 1987 album The Joshua Tree, the last time they were content with merely being a capital-R Rock band instead of arty and ironic. It is a strange and disquieting revelation, that Japandroids often sound more like old U2 than like current anybody. There’s nothing explicitly throwback-oriented about them — they’re not pining for a simpler, better time in either their own personal lives or in the history of guitar-based rock music. They’re enacting, not reenacting. They’re blazing a new trail to an old place worth rediscovering. The simplest explanation is that sincere bombast this sincere and this bombastic is rarely tolerated in rock bands now — even large-font festival headliners. It’s so far out of fashion now that these guys almost sound like futurists.

But that’s all trivia. There are maybe a half-dozen pure rock ’n’ roll records in the past half-decade as good as this one, and Japandroids definitely made one of those, too. You may even come to prefer this to Celebration Rock, should you get drunk enough, which is most definitely their recommendation. All’s I know is “No Drink or Drug” has been on repeat around here for so long that Spotify may send somebody out to my house to make sure I haven’t died.

The Japandroids album template, by the way, mandates that after the Track 7 climax, you close out on a weepy ballad. Celebration Rock had the bleacher-makeout anthem “Continuous Thunder.” This time out, you get “In a Body Like a Grave,” a much dourer affair, with an opening verse they dared not garnish with Sha-na-na-na-nas:

The outlook improves, as it tends to do with these guys. Their advice: “Gather the gang and make that night / An ultimatum to the universe, fuck or fight.” Near to the Wild Heart of Life argues, convincingly, that there’s no need to even choose. You’ve heard all this before, but that’s precisely why you need to hear it all again. This is the Super Bowl where everyone wins.