June 12, 2012

North of Northwest: Japandroids – Celebration Rock




When Japandroids burst noisily forth into the cultural consciousness with their 2009 album Post-Nothing, it was the bittersweet ode to self-annihlation “Young Hearts Spark Fire” that best exemplified their appeal. Raucous and heartfelt, “Fire” is about celebrating your youth, but even more about clutching at it desperately as you feel the beginnings of its inevitable retreat: “We used to dream / Now we worry about dying.” For thousands of rock n roll kids perched awkwardly on the edge of thirty, Japandroids articulated the secret fears their hearts hadn’t even admitted to, and spoke of them in the familiar staccato language of fist pumps and bass drum.

Post-Nothing was followed by No Singles, a collection of earlier but somehow more mature recordings. The tracks on Singles are heavy with noise and portent, painting world-weary visions of a dystopian Vancouver that only seems to exist under William Gibson dead-TV skies. “Tell her / That I can see the future / Tell her / That the future is bleak,” vocalist Brian King summarizes on opening track “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown.” “The future used to be so bright / We used to only sleep at night” King and drummer David Prowse sing/shout between fire-alarm choruses of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” in “Coma Complacency.”

After the darkness and emotional complexity of these two albums, listening to Celebration Rock raises one repeated and unfortunate question: have Japandroids regressed?

Somewhere between Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock, Prowse and King seem to have flung introspection and regret out the window of their tour van and simply welcomed hedonism with a wholehearted, drunken embrace. Japandroids have simplified their lives. And it doesn’t suit them.

If, as they declared in “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” Japandroids “just wanna worry about sunshine girls,” they seem to have succeeded. Celebration Rock‘s eight breezy tracks mostly address the timeless jock rock topics of partying and fucking; unfortunately, they have little interesting to say about either one. In fact, some of King’s lyrics descend into the downright embarrassing: “So come and find me in this moment / And expose a passionate man for what he is,” he requests in “Evil’s Sway.” The chorus of “The Nights Of Wine And Roses” – “We all want to know what nobody knows / What the nights of wine and roses hold / For the wine and roses of our souls” – is undeniably catchy, but unfortunately insipid.

The one fleeting moment of old-Japandroids glory comes on “Younger Us,” a song already familiar from its release as a 7″ last summer. “Remember saying things like we’ll sleep when we’re dead / And thinking this feeling was never going to end… Give me younger us.” It’s the bittersweet nostalgia that the band does best, for three and a half minutes caught perfectly in a song instead of unfortunately pursued as a life philosophy.

Celebration Rock retains most of the musical elements that have always made Japandroids so viscerally appealing: the powerful drumbeats, the “Woah-oh-oh-oh” scream-along choruses. But what’s missing is what lies beneath: the pounding, still-sweating [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JA3OKJW1aY] heart. The edges are blunted, the corners rounded.

Japandroids used to offer the unusual experience of consciously cathartic mindlessness, escapism that was constantly aware of what it was escaping from. Now they seem on track to become simply an oversimplified parody version of themselves, a so-so Japandroids tribute band that doesn’t really get it. We’ll all still raise our plastic beer cups and, echoing Celebration Rock‘s closing lines, sing out loud “Yeah yeah yeah” like continuous thunder. But underneath the floorboards where that telltale heart used to lie, it sounds a little hollow.


Celebration Rock is out now on Polyvinyl Records.


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