Album Review: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

[Polyvinyl; 2012]

Why do we celebrate? It might just be our most universal ritual, but it’s also unique to time, place, and culture, and it’s a little different for everyone. It’s a joyous thing, but otherwise there are no real rules. Whether you want to preserve, uphold, commemorate or just forget, there’s a good chance that Japandroids can empathize.

After the failed promise of five singles in 2010 and a brief breakup, Japandroids have unleashed a follow-up to the infectious Post-Nothing. Make no mistake, they’re still the same lovably shabby garage rockers, but Celebration Rock is a step forward, both in terms of depth and musicianship. It takes bigger strides; its songs contain more moving parts, better stories, and a greater degree of sophistication. Brian King and David Prowse are no longer a pair of restless Vancouverites dying to get away; they’ve matured (relatively speaking) and they’ve seen the world, a fact that comes to the fore less than a minute into the proceedings. After a disheveled intro consisting of fireworks, distant drums and a lean, hyperactive chord progression, “The Night of Wine and Roses” bursts open into a glorious hi-fi adventure. “Rome lit up tonight/ And still drinking/ Don’t we have anything to live for?” they ask. “Well of course we do/ But until it comes true/ We’re drinking.” It’s the ultimate compromise for them: partying abroad with one eye on the future. It’s a tidy statement that sums up Japandroids outlook in a single stanza. They don’t care for the daily grind; they just want to escape, and they want you to come with them.

“Fire’s Highway” is pleasantly reminiscent of “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” but it doesn’t bruise the ears in the same way. Instead of scraping along, it chimes, but is still the kind of song that begs to be played while you speed along the highway with the windows rolled down. “Evil’s Sway” pours on ominous minor key fortitude that thumps and jangles at a furious pace, but evolves into something warmer that you’d expect after a few listens. “For the Love of Ivy,” a cover of The Gun Club track, is done justice, even as the album’s weakest number. It wouldn’t sound out of place at a monster truck rally.

With the sophomore record, there comes the risk of repeating yourself. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to alienate if you distance yourself too much from the sound that endeared your initial audience. Japandroids’ biggest step in this regard comes in the form of “Adrenaline Nightshift.” From the mucky, choppy riff to the chorus that begs you to sing along, this is a summer anthem of the highest caliber. Even if it’s not quite built to shake stadiums, it’s closer than you might expect, yet it never feels like they’re making concessions. “Younger Us,” which first appeared nearly two years ago, fits in nicely, but its inclusion on an album that only has seven original songs does seem like something of a cop-out.

Next comes “The House That Heaven Built,” which contains the best wordless hook that Japandroids have ever crafted. Breathless, exuberant, and as catchy as it is relentless, it already seems destined to go down as one of the best tracks of the year. While the album’s musical climax comes on its penultimate track, the emotional climax comes on “Continuous Thunder.” King laments: “If I had all the answers/ And you had the body you wanted.” It’s rendered with such tenderness and honesty that you almost forget that they’re also responsible for the preceding tracks.

For a band that seems like it bangs out its songs on a whim, there is an unusual level of insight within their lyrics. Poetry is crammed into the most unexpected of places, amidst screaming, distortion and fervent percussion. It’s as surprising as it is welcome. Celebration Rock is in perpetual motion, driven by a visceral sense of urgency that most modern guitar music is so sorely lacking. For Japandroids, celebrating rock seems to be an almost minute component of their ambitions. They’re more interested in celebrating being alive.