If you're not already on board with Japandroids raucous brand on noise rock, you really should be. The duo's third album proper, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, flexes so many more musical muscles than its almost perfect predecessor Celebration Rock. It's difficult to think of how the Canadian band could have crafted a better follow-up to that record. Taken together both albums are like a one-two punch of high intensity joyous noise. However you can certainly hear this time around that Brian King and David Prowse have refined their sound by making small improvements.
It's perhaps a happy accident, but the opening lyrics of lead single and title-track 'Near To The Wild Heart Of Life' seem scarily prescient in a world unsettled by the inauguration of Donald Trump. "The future's under fire" seems prophetic and strangely evocative of the President's Apprentice catchphrase, but thankfully Japandroids aren't aiming their sights on a grand political statement. Instead the track that races out of the gate with a drum roll and wall of guitar noise concentrates on leaving home, with all the anticipation and promise it entails. It's like a slice of classic Springsteen on speed, "I used to be good, but now I'm bad" King exclaims, there's a dark undercurrent to the exuberance that comes to the fore later in the record.
Musically and lyrically Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is a big step forward. The vocals aren't buried as far down in the mix as before, allowing more nuance to their delivery, even if many of the lines seem like feel-good choruses on first inspection. There's also a wry sense of humour and affection in lines like "Canada always answers when I call her name" ('North East South West'). Alongside a through-line narrative that encompasses life on the road and matters of the heart, both religious and romantic, there are also additional backing vocalists and synths introduced to the usual guitar and drums Japandroids formula. The first hint that the King and Prowse are mixing things up comes with the acoustic guitar and synths that herald the arrival of 'True Love And Free Life Of Free Will'. As the acoustic guitar persists over the noise that builds you realise that King and Prowse aren't trying to use sheer force to get their point across anymore, they've broadened their horizons as they explore a world of "cigarettes, sorcery, and biblical sins".
Indeed the album's eight tracks fall conveniently into two very distinct halves, making Near To The Wild Heart Of Life feel distinctly designed for the vinyl format. The highlight comes as the record introduces its second side with 'Arc Of Bar' Suddenly it's all synth loops drenched in big riffs with King preaching from a bar stool. Over more than seven minutes the track slowly transforms an alcoholic haze into a religious experience culminating in swathes of almost choral backing vocals. What could have been an extravagant sonic experiment manages to keep your interest throughout while King creates one his most complicated and literate narratives to date.
The record ends on a darker note by outlining some of the certainties of life that remain the way that they've always been during 'In A Body Like A Grave', Even here though there's a sense of joy and hope, "remember there's heaven in the hellist of holes" King sings, closing the album with a defiant, life affirming, and cathartic outpouring of frustrations. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life impresses throughout, and like any record that sits comfortably under the forty minute mark, it leaves you wanting more. It certainly doesn't feel slight, but with the band at the top of their game, it's an album that's almost too concise for its own good, which is why listening to it alongside its predecessor makes for an even more rewarding experience.
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