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- Posted on Oct 26th 2012 4:00PM by Maria Sherman
A few weeks ago I poised a question on Twitter: Would anyone be interested in reading an essay on Japandroid's "Celebration Rock" and how the record is, in my opinion, less than the perfection it is being heralded as? After receiving overwhelming negative response, Pitchfork music writer (and public Japandroids enthusiast) Ian Cohen replied with "Would totally read that considering the negative reviews have mostly been 'it's too much awesome!'" -- largely the reason I felt inspired to go ahead and write this damn thing.
Celebration Rock, the Vancouver band's second full-length and arguably their most definitive, will undoubtedly rank high on critical end-of-year lists. Since the five months of its release, the record has received Pitchfork's coveted Best New Music title, the A.V. Club gave "Celebration Rock" an "A," Spin Magazine gave the album a near perfect rating -- and other than a quick jab at the album's repetitiveness by NOW's Carla Gillis and an average review in the NME, there has been little opposing discourse. Celebration Rock, it seems, has won everyone over (or at least anyone who would like that kind of album). The universal critical consensus is so present it appears natural. But when we lose dialogue, we lose what make music criticism so great -- the opportunity to pontificate a new way of experiencing something. And until the "perfect" record actually exists, we don't have to settle for Celebration Rock.
The images Japandroids evoke are unmistakable: They want to feel indestructible; they long to set the world on fire with the friends and the girl they love by their side. Japandroids want to ensure nothing gets in their way and see no problem with having actions define who they are: sensitive and powerful. Japandroids are absolutely obsessed with youth, manifested with an unwavering, openly expressive pressure -- exactly where the danger kicks in. Sure, there's the risk of nostalgia -- are we still in the era of Retromania? -- but with "Celebration Rock," Japandroids go above and beyond, embodying a falsified youth: Guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse are clearly not adolescents.
The difference between Celebration Rock, and the feeling of invincibility that accompanies youth is found in the reinterpretation of earnestness. I don't doubt Japandroids believe in all of that they create, but by playing with ideas and events they've already experienced as if occurring in real time feels melancholic, as if the band is arrested in time. Celebration Rock longs for a youthful agency to drive the band's sense of urgency, but by forcing it into the present, makes the album feel fabricated; the listener expects the album to move faster, but Celebration Rock fails to mobilize quickly enough. Not to delve too deeply into the identity politics of ageism in music (though that would be an interesting argument as criticism is usually expressed oppositely, with early 20-somethings written off as being too young for certain artistic maturation) but here, the memory of being young places Celebration Rock in a space where listening without thinking of age is an absolute impossibility.
This is a new hedonism: To take the marketable energy of youth and vomit it onto those hungry for any non-threatening anthemic, characteristically physical music. Celebration Rock is successful in this way, but it's far from the authenticity celebrated critically.
It didn't always used to be this way. The band's early EPs, All Lies and Lullaby Death Jams fall closely under the emo umbrella, the sort of '90s revivalism that gets the short end of the stick, the important music genre proliferated by sweaty, sad, earnest dudes -- characteristics inherent in Japandroids but perhaps misguided in 2012's Celebration Rock. A superficial analysis would be that the "emo-ness" of these early recordings place them squarely in a genre categorically uncool (but also heavily youth-oriented) while listing Celebration Rock as one of your favorite records of the year will, by no means, end with snickers from indie music fans.
Not until 2009's Post-Nothing does the beginning of Japandroid's current youth-obsessed artistic mentality become visible. The record, also critically heralded, lacks a certain degree of form that makes Celebration Rock superior. The album is noisy and distorted, anthemic in a clouded way. At times, the lyrical content is completely indecipherable. The record wholly moves with a slower sort of brutality, less controlled and loosely organized. From the little that is clear, the record is largely about girls ("girls" here used purposefully) and the angst that accompanies pursuing them -- a universal issue that should really only plague those in their teens. The track "Young Hearts Spark Fire" puts emphasis on youth with the reiteration of "I don't want to worry about dying." The last song of the record is even titled "I Quit Girls" with the prepubescent rambling of "After her, I quit girls," declared in a cloak instead of shouting devotion. Here, Post-Nothing is the foundation for Celebration Rock, perpetuated in a state of pre-evolution, a cloistered adolescence.
The less impressive and oft overlooked No Singles compilation LP that followed Post-Nothing doesn't represent the current spirit of Japandroids quite like the previous record. The band seems to value live performance über alles, evident even in the record's booklet (a series of live shots) and rarely play material from the album. Japandroids seem to overlook No Singles as well.
Which brings us to their latest. Clearly an improvement from any previously recorded material but not necessarily in a way that makes the record more or less interesting -- definitely not enough to qualify it for the amount of positive press it has been receiving. Eight tracks in 34 minutes never feels tiresome, but unlike punk records of short duration, Celebration Rock leaves the listener unsatisfied, though it is clearly a refinement of Japandroids' definitive aesthetic.
The band places emphasis on the lyrical content when, in the past, their words have felt secondary, making their "fuck all" attitude even more direct -- not to mention, more infectious -- than just being an outright noisy guitar band. The frequently quoted lyric of the opening track, "The Nights of Wine and Roses": "Long lit up tonight and still drinking/don't we have anything to live for?/Well of course we do/but 'til they come true, we're drinking" rings of a matured Blink-182, retrospective while attempting to command a disembodied present presence. Celebration Rock is a record of memory forced into the shape of something more tangible, which is why instead of empowerment, instead of rocking the fuck out, it feels disingenuous. Japandroids have managed to develop distinct artistic (and, quite possibly, private) personas predicated on nostalgia for youth, an ideological issue when you age but the things you love don't. The album is the soundtrack to arrested adolescence.
Not that Japandroids are inherently dishonest -- they aren't. Celebration Rock has few moments of endearing honesty, sensitivity almost too self-aware, the desperate celebration of youth. Deeply present in the lyrical content of the album but also in its musical structure, not to mention the absolutely ridiculous opening and closing of the record with the sound of fireworks.
A closer look: "Younger Us" -- written in 2010 -- is choked with power chords and simple progressions, the stuff pop punk -- another musical genre typically associated with youth -- is made of. The lyrical repetitions of "give me younger us" and the anecdotal throwbacks of "remember saying things like we'll sleep when we're dead/and thinking this feeling was never going to end?" as well as "remember that night you were already in bed/said 'Fuck it' and got up to drink with me instead?" are intimate memories, a glimpse inside an indulgent past. Here's where the misguided earnesty comes into play: Sonically, these things are to be celebrated in a haze, much like memory itself. Celebration Rock doesn't give you the energy to paint the town red, but the energy to remember how great it used to be -- you cannot compete with the past. Sentimentality is not only powerful, it's contagious. But does that make it good? How can we place value on something that already happened and herald it as futuristic?
In a recent Noisey interview, guitarist/vocalist Brian King mentioned that their music doesn't necessarily focus on what is popular now, but what has been in the past, speaking to their success. Japandroids are not being drowned out by other guitar bands, which fundamentally appeals to their underdog aesthetic because the current state of indie rock finds pride in the acknowledgement of rockism as a taboo thing. Japandroids find themselves at a place of wild success.
I believe this is because Japandroids are familiar. Perhaps on the alternate end of the current
'90s revivalism kick, listening to Celebration Rock harkens back to past records (not to mention frequent Replacements comparisons), which makes it challenging to ignore. There is also the ever-present value on the live show, the traditionalist uniformity of their album covers. Standardization is easy to digest, and perhaps what draws more and more new listeners to Japandroids. There is also another form of sonic familiarity, because, well, Japandroids are just a rock band. There is nothing complicated about that -- it's hard to hate guitars, drums and little else.
I once spoke to Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles about the subject and he retorted something along the lines of "Of course everyone likes the '90s! It was better then because you were a fucking kid." That's the kind of nostalgia impossible to compete with. Perhaps Japandroids express the sort of interpersonal connection inherent in '90s guitar bands, the same found in Titus, without the same level of hunger. If Celebration Rock is anything, it's escapist -- from the present and the past, a disembodied nostalgia. So before you list it as your go-to pump-up record, think of the melancholy that comes when you are forced to leave your youth behind.
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