Japandroids have little use for subtlety; simple straight-forwardness is their ideological foundation. Hence, their uniform black-and-white single and album cover art, their one guitar/drums/vocals/nothing else instrumentation, the unabashed attempts at crafting earnest, nostalgic rock n’ roll singalongs… it’s all in the name of trying to make as bluntly honest a human connection as possible. Musically, they are an exercise in minimalism maximized, taking a relatively small arsenal of sounds and ideas and executing them with such urgent force so as to shake the listener into feeling something. It’s this no-bullshit-ever approach that allows a band to get away with things like calling their new album Celebration Rock and then begin and end said album with fireworks. And I don’t mean “fireworks” as a cheap metaphor for particularly awe-inspiring songs of breath-taking accomplishment (although several of those are present, and we’ll get to them in a minute). I mean fireworks. Like, actual fireworks.
If any other band tried these exact same things, it would almost certainly come off as ridiculous. When Japandroids do it, it’s actually their way of telling you that this time they’re serious. Everything that Post-Nothing had is here, but there’s more of it. The guitars are bigger and thicker, the drums drive harder, and the vocals are more upfront and assured than we’ve heard before. And the songs – good goddamn, these songs – are just better. It’s the sound of a band consciously stepping their game up, the kind of album that makes you realize, “Holy shit, these guys really want this.”
The most marked progression is in singer/guitarist Brian King’s lyrics, which have always been minimalistic almost out of aesthetic necessity. They’ve never really suggested any kind of real depth, which was always okay because they always seemed to be written more for maximum shoutalongability than for coherence. There was always a vague sense of romanticism and nostalgia, but that was all; nothing more was really necessary. It was just one more extension of Japandroids’ no-frills approach. For example, the lyrics of Post-Nothing’s “Crazy/Forever” consisted entirely of only eight different words. “The Boys Are Leaving Town” had fourteen – and one of them was “WHOAAAAA”. On Celebration Rock, however, there are words. There are so many words that compared to Post-Nothing, Celebration Rock comes off like Anna fucking Karenina. And this time around, King seems to have made a concerted effort to make those words mean something.
The best, most significant song on the record – and the one that most clearly illustrates this band’s massive leap forward, lyrically and otherwise – is “The House That Heaven Built”. Up until this point, Japandroids’ songs have mostly been about youthful frivolities and essentially portrayed them as such; yes, they were blown up to ten times reality’s scale and heavily romanticized by way of those big, thick guitar choruses, but King’s lyrics never painted any sense of consequence (which was either the point or an unintentionally aesthetically complementary by-product of his self-admitted past difficulties with writing lyrics). And for most of this album, that’s still true. “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “Younger Us” fall into this category: more songs about drinking, smoking, yelling, and running, which, make no mistake, Japandroids write and play better than anyone else in the game right now. But “The House That Heaven Built” finds Japandroids in more seriously weighted territory; for the first time, there’s a very real, unmistakable feeling of something actually being at stake. The words are styled in that usual patchwork of blurred images, but here they’re different; more evocative, and still vague, yes, but in the way that they feel like brief windows into a story that you want to hear more of. And the fact that they’re screamed out by King in his finest, most unapologetically confident vocal performance on record yet only makes them connect deeper. This is not to say that the actual song itself as music is comparatively uninteresting; far from it. The band drives the whole damn thing right into the fucking dust with all the laser-focused intensity of a man-made hurricane, and the end-product is, in a word, exhilarating. Fair warning: this is the kind of song that will earn you speeding tickets.
“The House That Heaven Built” is the absolute high point, but by no means do the rest of the songs underwhelm in comparison. “Younger Us”, one of the best songs of 2010 – and on Celebration Rock, making a very welcome victory lap – is a key indicator of what to expect here. “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “Evil’s Sway” are of that same thrashing, urgent, romantic cloth, as are “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “Fire’s Highway”. Every song is presented as an anthem, populated with “OHHHHHH-OH”s and “WHOAAAAAAAA”s that are clearly intended to maximize audience participation at their upcoming shows. And the whole thing flows magnificently. It really holds together as an album, and its conciseness — eight songs in thirty-five minutes, just like Post-Nothing. See what I mean? These guys are fucking consistent — is a big part of that. Again, these guys aren’t out to waste your time. The only misstep is the inclusion of a cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love Of Ivy”, which, on initial listens, does feel like it should have been left on a B-side. But after a few more go-throughs, even that begins to make sense: if Japandroids are out to make music that, above all else, is a tribute to youth, then it would make sense, for the sake of building a truer whole, to at least attempt to portray the nihilistic tendencies of adolescence alongside the achingly earnest desires. The contradiction of plopping a song with lyrics like “Gonna buy me a gun just as long as my arm/Kill everyone who ever done me harm” right in the middle of an album full of love songs for teenagers is not only hilarious, but a little bit brilliant too.
Ultimately, Celebration Rock lives up to its bold title. It is a celebration, through and through, of youth, rock n’ roll, and by natural extension of obsession, of Japandroids themselves. It’s the kind of album that you live with and that you will find useful. These are songs for kissing away gypsy fears, songs for yelling like hell to the heavens; songs for chasing that naked new skin rush, so to speak. It’s a thirty-five minute long stretch of continuous thunder that proves Japandroids can do successfully what too few bands attempt: craft music that serves as testament to the urgency of life.
© Justin Santelli, Music Vice
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