Japandroids—the wide-eyed, heart-sleeved, gloriously unreconstructed rockers whose last album (way back in 2012) bore the self-explanatory title Celebration Rock—probably aren’t the first band you’d expect to borrow an album title from James Joyce (by way of Clarice Lispector, no less). It fits, though. In comparison to the impetuous lo-fi id-eruptions of their younger days, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is a decidedly literary affair. (For one thing, despite containing the same perfect number of songs—eight—it has approximately three times as many lyrics as their debut.) Still, think more Hold Steady than the Decemberists. That Joyce line, after all, is a pretty spot-on gloss for the same primal, ineffable rock ’n’ roll spirit that has always spurred these guys, and they’re still singing about pretty much the same things—drinking, girls, the road, life, death—just with slightly more flowery language.
Indeed, the surging, searing titular opener—yet another anthem for the ages, in a body of work that seems composed of little else—fleshes out “The Boys Are Leaving Town,” the epigrammatic two-liner that kicked off their debut, into a sort of short story, channeling an itchy wanderlust (getting “fired up to go faraway”) that reflects both the rock ’n’ roll touring life and principal songwriter Brian King’s move from Vancouver to Toronto (and, subsequently, Mexico City). That sets up an album-length travelogue of epic proportions—from the mythic America of “North East South West” to the tropical taproom purgatory of Hemingway-tinged centerpiece “Arc Of Bar”—replete with “hangovers, heathens, harlots and anti-heroines.”
Fear not: The more writerly approach hasn’t dulled the duo’s riffage one iota, even if this is their most musically expansive and easily their cleanest-sounding outing yet—the better to actually hear the words. Poetics aside, the “sha-la-la”s speak just as loud as ever.
—K. Ross Hoffman