Well, good God damn, I’m finally gonna get to review a bad album by a good band. I’ve come close a few times in the past, sure. I’ve reviewed disappointing albums by bands with great track records (like The Glowing Man); I’ve reviewed bad album by bands that I once liked way back in their discography (like Machine Messiah); I’ve reviewed bad albums by bands I liked but only in a stupid cheesy nostalgic way (like The Stage). But here it is: an album released by a genuinely exciting and creative band, whose last album kicked ass, and it sucks.
I mean it’s only on listening to Near To The Wild Heart of Life that it becomes clear just how much Japandroids’ career-long raison d’etre has been playing with fire. The band’s sold itself on a mixture of anthemic pop-rock and post-punk noisiness, and I mean when their last album was recommended to me under that description I figured I was set for a good time. I mean that was basically the formula that made The Dismemberment Plan awesome. And Husker Du. And The Jesus and Mary Chain. And The Pixies. And The Flaming Lips. It just seemed like noisy alt-rock and upbeat pop rock were natural bed-fellows. But you know, looking back on it… it’s a weird combination, isn’t it? It’s like soy sauce and pineapple: yeah, it turns out that they work well together, but you seriously wonder what was going through the mind of the person who first proposed that they did. And you know what? Maybe The Dismemberment Plan et al are just really really good at their jobs. Because Near to the Wild Heart of Life fails precisely because it’s a total mismatch of elements. There’s a Lou-Reed white noise fuzz to the guitar tone, but the vocal lines and chord progressions are upbeat, melodic and clear, and neither of those aspects are able to rely on each other. The noisiness is too cheery to be cathartic, and the vocal melodies aren’t clean enough to be pretty. If the screeching white-noise of a Dismemberment Plan riff was a hammer and Travis Morrison’s melodic singing was a hook, then Near to the Wild Heart of Life approaches the issue with a hammer made out of fishing line and a hook made out of wood, the first part ineffectual and the latter part unappetizing.
But then to be honest, Near to the Wild Heart of Life would fail pretty staggeringly both its indie-darling and stadium-anthem ambitions even if it dealt with them both separately. The guitar tone is fuzzed out a little, sure, but not in any interesting ways; at no point in the album did I listen to a particular chord or a particular riff and think “Yep, what I am enjoying about this is 100% what the guitar sounds like.” There’s a vaguely punk-ish energy to the whole thing, sure, but nothing particularly exciting; there are Sum 41 albums that conjure up a fiercer furore. But then the song-writing itself is also astonishingly dull. Riffs are just your standard uplifting major-chord progression stuff that you hear on the kind of bands Spotify puts on its automatic playlists, and there’s no interesting interplay between any of the instruments. Brian King’s vocals might have gotten a pass, as the man’s obviously a capable singer with a fine range, but there’s not a single vocal melody here that’s memorable, or distinctive, or creative. It all feels so vacuous: the vocals are at the front of the music, because they’re clearly the technical heart of the band, but the actual vocal lines are so crushingly dull that it just creates a big fat nothing in the centre of the stage. This isn’t punk meets pop rock, this is Razorlight being played through crappy speakers. This is One Republic’s interpretation of edgy. This is to fuzzy, noisy indie rock what Iggy Azalea is to west-coast hip hop, and the thing that’s surprising is that it’s coming from a band that cut their teeth as a genuinely exciting noise-punk act, not from a radio-friendly pop-rock act trying to get down with the kids in flannel button-ups.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is, when you get down to it, an astonishingly bland album, and given who it’s coming from, that’s a pretty incredible kick in the teeth. Throughout this whole review I didn’t give the name of a single individual song, and you know, I’ll stand by that as evidence not of my ineptitude as a critic but of how totally devoid of content this disk is. Skip it. Go listen to Japandroids’ other stuff instead. With a bit of luck, they’ll do their homework next ti