It sounds harsh to call the first 30 seconds of the first song of this album the highlight, but that might just be true. Not many of the songs are bad, exactly, but the hazy distorted guitar and crisp drumroll that open Near to the Wild Heart Of Life are probably the closest that Japandroids come to matching the relentless energy of their critically acclaimed second album Celebration Rock. The rest of the title track is a decent attempt; it has a catchy hook but unfortunately bland lyrics, a defect that plagues the rest of the album by various degrees.
In fact, the lyrics epitomise the problem with the album as a whole. At times they’re daring or rousing, but they usually just sit somewhere between meaningless platitudes or worn out clichés. Musically the two-piece fair a little better. To say that they don’t meet the energy of their last record isn’t the harshest of criticism, because it would be a very impressive feat; removed from this daunting expectation the songs are still great examples of fist-pumping rock. No Known Drink Or Drug is perhaps the standout, propelled by a great guitar hook and a vocal performance that is head and shoulders over the rest. Unfortunately it still has its bad moments, such as the completely unnecessary and cheesy backing vocals.
The most baffling decision of the album has to be its seven and a half minute centrepiece, Arc Of Bar. Despite opening with a really promising electronically tinged introduction, it soon reveals itself as a turgid, directionless piece. The lyrics are a poor attempt at capturing small town Americana and made worse by the emotionless delivery. There’s no real chorus, only a few aahs and oohs, and the band’s idea of a crescendo is insultingly literal; they simply play the same tune a little louder than before.
Only once do they do something a little different from their past material. I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner) is a nice shoegaze inspired track that finishes disappointingly quickly. Its shortness is part of its appeal, yes, but the fact that the most interesting track on here is also the shortest says a lot about the album in general.
Closing track In A Body Like A Grave goes some way to redeeming the record, and is an example of how great drumming can elevate a song from decent to something more. Overall, however, Japandroids seem to have lost a bit of their magic. We can only hope that it’s a momentary dip in form, but I suspect that they won’t ever match the heights of Celebration Rock again.