The House That Heaven Built - The Japandroids
Records like this don’t come along very often. For all the simplicity of rock and roll, it’s somehow exceptionally difficult to harness its raw power without getting caught up in the pageantry. Rock so easily gets bloated, falls victim to its own clichés. So it’s the rarest of things to hear a band who can lay everything on the table without the slightest hint of pretense or doubt.
On the aptly-titled Celebration Rock, the Japandroids do precisely that. This is a record for the ages.
I’m now at a point in my life where I can really understand how Pitchfork went all-in on the And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead album 10 years ago. Some folks scoffed at the idea that a simple rock record could be a perfect 10.0. That rating, they thought, was reserved for Abbey Road or Let It Bleed or Blood on the Tracks. Maybe Radiohead.
But that’s wrong. Perfection doesn’t always have to mean flawless, or transcendental. It doesn’t have to mean chiseled with the precision of Michelangelo’s David. There are moments of perfection that you get from imperfect situations. This record is perfect in the same way that stepping into a brisk night feels perfect after being trapped in a stuffy room. Or the way that a first kiss is perfect, even if you don’t end up spending your life with that person.
The first time I heard this record, I knew within the first 20 seconds of the first track (the stomping/shouting explosion that is “The Nights of Wine and Roses”) that this was going to be a contender for album of the year. And things only continue upward from there. “Fire’s Highway” is a thunderbolt of a song. It cuts through the ether and sets fire where it connects. And, long after the initial strike, the reverberations rumble around you.
Rounding out the opening trio of songs is “Evil’s Sway” which is a dirty little piece of garage rock. At the heart of the song is about as straightforward a piece of rock and roll lyricism as you’ll ever find (with a shoutout to Tom Petty): “oh yeah, alright. On the last and lashing out, it’s evil’s sway tonight.”
“Adrenaline Nightshift” is probably the most straightforward rock song on the record, driven by a very simple riff and the power of love and youth and boundless energy. And “Younger Us” touches on the same themes with just a touch less effect. These are songs to care about, to feel deep in your marrow, to drink deeply.
Still, for all the great stuff up to this point, it’s the final two tracks that completely steal the show. If Celebration Rock is a perfect piece of rock and roll, then the tip of the spear which drives this point home is “The House That Heaven Built.” Addressed to a departed love, it combines the dense imagery of a walk through the remnants of a civilization with the most explosively straightforward, plaintive, and heart-wrenching chorus I can ever remember hearing:
When they love you (and they will)
Tell ‘em all they’ll love in my shadow
And if they try to slow you down
Tell ‘em all to go to hell
And the sound of it all. Oh god, the sound. This song taps into every conceivable reservoir of rock and roll power you can imagine. The drums are insistent, marching along with implacable resolve. There is a single stomping beat that drives everything forward faster and faster. And then there is a backbeat, the clashing of cymbals, and the ever-rising sense of explosive potential.
But the essence of this song is found in the pauses and spaces in between the noise. Those moments when the drums fall out are poised on a knife’s edge. And when the tornado strikes again it feels like it might very well be Judgment Day. See 3:25 for the finest example of this. This is a song to build empires around.
After that sort of intensity, you’re going to have to take a breath. Fortunately, the album closer “Continuous Thunder” allows you to do precisely that. Though with this band, even the ‘low-key’ songs pack an enormous punch. It condenses the whole album into one glorious question: “Would we love with a legendary fire?” as the guitars swirl around and build, and build, and build. And there really is nothing but continuous thunder.
It seems almost beside the point to call this the best record of the year (though it certainly is). Celebration Rock simply brushes past the need for analysis or comparison. Just listen to it. You’ll be happy you did.