“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”
To readers of James Joyce, Stephen Dedalus’ epiphany on Sandymount Strand, described in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is an apical moment—a passage that resounds beyond itself in proclamation of all that we love in his fiction. So when I saw that the Vancouver rock duo Japandroids had named their latest album after one of the passage’s most recognizable phrases—Near to the Wild Heart of Life—I felt at once an immense surge of excitement and a kind of wary apprehension. The tremendous ambition that Japandroids’ title choice suggests scans at first as more than a little sneer-inducing. Further, it sets the stakes incredibly high. How much of a letdown would The Sound and the Fury be, for instance, if its quality and originality didn’t justify the Shakespearean title?
Although they never could have been expected to “go literary” in such an explicit way, Japandroids’ blasted, fist-pumping noise rock has always evoked, if never before explicitly invoked, the ecstasy that Joyce describes. The new album’s opener—also called “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”—is a characteristic introductory barnstormer, plowing forth in a furious surge of Marshall Stack-ed guitars and David Prowse’s planetary drumming. By the third line, which mentions “a continuous cold war between my home and my hometown,” I was uncritically and overwhelmingly on board, ready to give my life for art, mapping out my plans to drop out of college and follow Japandroids on tour forever, and excitedly anticipating their next album, which, I thought, would probably (and justifiably, and unironically) be called To Be or Not To Be.
There is a certain type of young male, of a particular disposition and musical inclination, that will feel exactly these feelings from the first moments of the album, and indeed frequently throughout. Japandroids make music for agonistic vaunting, for flinging oneself up against the battlements of life and crying out “look and despair!” without irony—without even conceiving of irony. And as on previous albums, this leads to some deeply silly moments. The lyrics contain occasional phrases by turns clichéd and ridiculous, metaphors mixed and abandoned, and punctuated by what would in the hands of any other band scan as self-parodic phatic outbursts (it almost goes without saying in a Japandroids review, but there are a lot of “whoas” and “yeahs”). Brian King’s got a limited range and a similarly limited register of song structures to build from. But none of this mars the listening experience; and experienced in the proper context (the open road, the sweaty basement), these elements actually enhance it. It’s as though the listener, liberated from the decorum of artistic nuance, experiences something like the pure form of rock and roll, disconnected from any reality-referent and actually better for it.
But whereas Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock occasionally felt one-note from a distance, Wild Heart offers more than merely a very good-but-dumb rock record for post-adolescent boys who want to cut loose—it offers thematic and stylistic dimensionality. For although the title track drops us in media res into a world of “passion and pure provocation” and “bedlam in my bed” (yikes), Brian King’s “fired up” urge to “go far away” reveals itself as a red herring over the album’s course. “North East South West,” which follows, documents the culmination of its predecessor’s “Born to Run” escapism, familiarly describing the band on tour in terms of the hero’s journey. And yet, like wandering Odysseus, King finds true meaning not in the “madness standing in [his] way” but rather in the warm embrace of his beloved waiting for him at home. “Baby the trouble that I get into…” King sings almost wistfully, idling on the threshold, before reaffirming his love: “It ain’t shit compared to loving you.” Later, on the album’s penultimate (and best) track, he reiterates this sentiment: “No known drink, no known drug, could ever hold a candle to your love.”
Is this sappy? No question. But coming from a band that once ended an album with a track surreptitiously titled “I Quit Girls” and whose second single espoused an urgent need to “get to France so [they] can French kiss some French girls,” it feels almost staggering in its earnestness and generosity. More overwhelming still is “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” in which King intones the title through a vocal filter so distorted that it threatens to overwhelm the sentiment. But the message comes through in spite of its accoutrements—a message of dedication, the purity of which is utterly unmatched in Japandroids’ body of work. King hasn’t “grown up” so much as retooled the unidirectional energy of the band’s earlier work into an internal dialectic—not just of “home” and “hometown” but also of chaos and constant, noise and clarity, sobriety and intoxication, the steady beloved and the vast unknown. These oppositional forces play out their war throughout the album, with King often cannily casting them in matrimonial terms. In “Midnight to Morning”, he characterizes himself as “born to marry the bottle in a ceremony that lasts forever,” before hedging: “If you’ll hide me and heal me in your sanctuary, I’ll stay forever.” A marriage will occur—but to whom, or what? Earlier, in “True Love and a Life of Free Will,” he describes the instability of this contingency: “Plans to settle down / Plans to up and split / Plans loose as the morals we are planning with.” Japandroids find their new muse in this looseness, careening between the road and the hearth.
In this way, the album justifies its title, or at least makes a complex claim to it. Because although Stephen Dedalus’ epiphany launches him headlong into the world and what he hopes will be a profound artistic career, he reappears in Ulysses as a failed, penniless poet, having returned home to native Dublin with his tail between his legs. Japandroids have recognized in their Joycean inspiration the futility—the impossibility—of the ceaseless raging that their previous two records expertly attempted. Here, the fire turns inward as much as outward; instead of trying to break out of the body (and the hometown, et cetera), Japandroids face their limits—personal and musical—headlong on Wild Heart. That the album is as thrilling as anything they’ve done before comes as no surprise; properly expressed, the journey toward self-knowledge can be as heroic as any other.