Second Look: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

I haven’t been in the mood to celebrate anything… for reasons personal, political, existential, oftentimes in some lousy combination. The last several months of news in the States have been particularly grim yet entirely predictable, and there’s no reason to believe that anything will spur our leaders to deliver meaningful change. What a cliché to say that music gets me through these times! But it’s true – Shore and songs + instrumentals provided solace in the darkest winter of our time; Album and House of Sugar anchored me during moments of intense personal crisis. Even so, there’s something particularly taunting in 2022 about revisiting an album that starts with fireworks crackling in the distance.

But that’s now Japandroids chose to open their second album Celebration Rock, which turned 10 earlier this year. To be clear, nothing about the opening track “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” nor the rest of the album, is arrogant or insincere. The distant drumming that grows closer reveals itself through its acoustics; the song’s setting isn’t an arena, but a small venue. Brain King’s opening verse only reinforces this interpretation:

“Long lit up tonight and still drinking
Don’t we have anything to live for?
Well of course we do
But till they come true
We’re drinking”

These dudes aren’t living large. They’re waiting for their lives to start.

King and David Prouse had already called Japandroids quits when their 2009 debut Post-Nothing took off. Around this time, King also suffered from a perforated ulcer, one which he “just about died” from. The duo decided to tour Post-Nothing simply because they wanted the experience, only to return and find their Vancouver lives lacking in excitement. Of course they would feel that way – the dream they almost gave up on unexpectedly, gloriously, came true.

Who wouldn’t want to keep the momentum going with another album? Who wouldn’t want to celebrate?

The serendipity of their circumstances drives Celebration Rock, an album that explores the fever-dream surrealness that comes when someone’s one-time fantasy becomes reality. For 35 minutes, King and Prowse are unrelenting in their drumming, their shredding, their singing, their shouting. “The Nights of Wine and Roses” builds up tirelessly with every verse and chorus take. “We yell like hell to the heavens” they sing – a motif that’s explored throughout the album. These words aren’t religious in nature but colloquial declarations of appreciation, of celebration, things you say to express unbridled emotion.

The album’s second track “Fire’s Highway” only ups the duo’s energy. The track’s euphoric opening riff collides with Prowse’s drumming – the next three minutes is a roaring, shimmering anthem and the hardest listeners had heard the duo thus far (though they’d go even harder later in the album). Nevertheless, their relatability remains intact; the vocal hooks that decorate the song aren’t just anchors for listeners to sing along to, they’re markers of celebration. These dudes make it clear they’re having the time of their lives.

Celebration Rock is also, undeniably, an album created by two straight white men. What would a rock album be without “her Blitzkrieg love / And a roman candle kiss” as described on “Adrenaline Night Shift”? Sexual temptation is not-so-subtly explored in the pounding “Evil’s Sway”, a song bookended by muddy riffs evoking that ever-present “sexual red”. Nevertheless, the song’s lyrics are more sensitive than they could have been; fire and kindling serve as metaphors, and the duo possesses a self-awareness that recognizes the emotional complexity that comes with sex (shame, desire). Men are horny, yes, but these two men handle the subject with a degree of maturity.

Of course, self-awareness can only go so far at times. The album reaches a fever pitch on the duo’s seething cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. The song’s biting, descending shred cuts into the album’s energy like a hot knife; guitar feedback pierces the song while Prowse’s drumming goes so hard you can picture his drum kit teetering – it’s the closest the duo comes on the album to letting their energy get the best of them. What dedication to a cover – one that also feels odd by today’s standards. Blackness defines the song: the title is taken from the 1968 film starring Sidney Poitier and the lyrics reference folk hero John Henry. The duo thankfully updated the original song’s inexcusable phrasing, though it’s still hard not to wonder whether the song’s inclusion in the tracklist would fly at all if the album were recorded in 2022.

Nevertheless, Celebration Rock remains one of the most earnest rock records you’ll ever hear, an important quality in an album that denies listeners any moment to catch their breaths until the very end. Japandroids’ 2009 debut Post-Nothing remains an excellent document of late-aughts indie punk, but if you put, say, “Crazy/Forever” next to Celebration Rock highlight “Adrenaline Night Shift”, their leap in songwriting and confidence isn’t only apparent, but inspiring. Lyrically, Japandroids moved from repetitive one-liners of young male malaise to delivering these same woes through fleshed-out descriptions and, I daresay, storytelling.

“Adrenaline Night Shift”’s protagonist – a “sulking drunk in the back of the bar” – comes to life playing his music deep into the night. He expresses his emotion through a combination of poetic imagery and a touch of awe: “When the plunder of the poets / Thunder of a punk’s guitar / Beat life to my body.” His transformation into a nightshift performer mirror the trajectory of the duo. Only, whereas the protagonist is “waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin”, in 2012, it was Japandoroids who lit the match.

The bonfire, the celebration writ large, culminates in “The House That Heaven Built”, which remains one of their greatest achievements. The song matches the formula of the album’s other anthems, yet expands on it in every way. The lyrics again deal with self-actualization, yet are delivered as life-saving advice: celebrate yourself, recognize that you are loved, but remember, if someone tries to slow you down to “tell ‘em all to go to hell.” The song is equally euphoric as the rest of the album, yet the pacing feels more intentional. The riffs and thumping drums that open the song prepare the listener for a marathon, not a sprint. The duo’s call-and-response vocals are typically in service to some melody that listeners could sing along to. Yet here the approach also works on a meta-level, as if King and Prowse aren’t only speaking to a character in the song or the listener, but to each other. They’re reassuring each other that they have every reason to celebrate.

In my early 20s, I could readily relate to the ethos of Celebration Rock in the same way I connected to albums like The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I. Yes, young adulthood is a bitch. It’s nothing like you imagined. Your plans will fall off the rails. But surely, stick through and things will get better. 

But so much has changed in the decade since Celebration Rock. We’ve seen a global rise in right-wing extremism. We’re over two years into a global pandemic while another global health emergency this summer put into question whether our institutions will ever be capable of learning from past mistakes. For so many in my generation, things have not gotten better. With another recession quite possibly on the horizon, the idea of fearlessly moving onward seems more and more futile. The oldest of us are knocking on the door of middle age with little to show from our younger years.

In this regard, Celebration Rock feels a little out of touch with the times – the word privilege comes to mind. The album touches on the themes of aging in “Younger Us”, but the song’s dizzying energy – those cymbal crashes, those fluttering riffs – makes it clear the stakes aren’t high. Sure, the protagonist longs for his youth, but is he really suffering?

Even the album’s cover—the black and white portrait of King and Prowse sitting and looking at us—these days feels like a portrait to be admired in a museum. Of course, creating something that helped define its era is no small achievement. The summer of 2012 saw outstanding follow-ups from artists that delivered classics just a few years prior—Bloom, Shields, Swing Lo Magellan. Celebration Rock deservedly joins that list. Though for me the question remains: what does this album have to say in 2022?

Maybe more than I thought, just differently from what I expected. After all, there’s a reason why I return to the album again and again. Celebration Rock is part nostalgic, part cathartic; part wish fulfilment, part get-off-my-ass motivator. Throughout its runtime, I’m thrown into a raucous, thrashing fever dream that became a reality for its creators. The only song that lets in any breathing room is the album closer “Continuous Thunder”. The song’s arena-sized production (an upgrade from the album’s start), its expansive riffs, echo its emotional climax. “And if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire / Would you still take my hand tonight?” King asks his lover.

Of course, he has the answer. For the moment, these dudes have everything.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”

When the album’s over, some of King and Prowse’s energy pushes me into whatever I need to do next. And sometimes, that’s enough. These days, the little wins matter more than ever.

Cue the fireworks.