The Minneapolis band's follow-up to 'America Give Up' is bigger, faster, smarter and stronger
In an age of agnostics, Howler are true believers – and that’s got to be worth something. Yet while their debut album undoubtedly had its moments, let’s not beat around the bush: it was hard to listen to ‘America Give Up’ and not be struck by a nagging sense of having heard it done before, better, and really not all that long ago. You’re rooting for them to add up to more than the sum of all those well-chosen parts, but the truth is, until now, we’ve been more in love with the idea of Howler – the leather jackets, the droll outsider insouciance, the exceptional cheekbones – than the reality of a replacement Replacements.
Addressing that discrepancy is the main task facing ‘World Of Joy’, but Howler have gone about it in subtler ways than you might imagine. It’s certainly no reinvention: according to frontman Jordan Gatesmith, the album was apparently conceived of as a drunken rummage through the contents of a scummy dive-bar jukebox, which is really just a fancy way of saying it sounds quite a lot like ‘America Give Up’. The difference between this record and its predecessor, however, is akin to the difference between a young athlete with plenty of potential but little nous or experience, and that same athlete after a couple of years of intensive self-improvement: everything is that much bigger, faster, smarter and stronger. Tearing through its 10 songs in a shade under 28 minutes, ‘World Of Joy’ sounds like a band straining themselves to top a personal best. Happily, they’ve managed it.
Their reference points may be unchanged, but this time around, the songs are a bit more worthy of them. ‘Here’s The Itch That Creeps Through My Skull’ boasts a guitar part that evokes the dark, melodic melancholy of Johnny Marr (the lyrics even reference ‘The World Won’t Listen’ for good measure), while ‘Drip’ pogos around with oikish, bovver-booted enthusiasm. Sure, there are less captivating moments – the title track sounds like something that didn’t make the cut for The Strokes’ third album, and final track ‘Aphorismic Wasteland Blues’ is a bit of a damp squib on – but they’re few enough (and fleeting enough) that they almost slip past unnoticed.
In the context of the wider debate about ‘that rock’n’roll’ and its place – or lack of it – in the current scheme of things, ‘World Of Joy’ could comfortably serve as an exhibit for both prosecution and defence. Shouldn’t it be trying to break new ground? Or is the old ground of the Ramones, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers still fertile enough to warrant planting their flag in? Howler know which side of that argument they’re on, and the dumb, youthful rush of songs like ‘Indictment’ make a pretty compelling case for their way of seeing things. If need be, they’re going down with the ship.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though, because for the most part, ‘World Of Joy’ sounds like a long-overdue spike on the electrocardiograph, the spasm of a previously atrophied muscle, an overdue sign of life. It’s all there on ‘Don’t Wanna’, rattling off its checklist of things we don’t have to do – be a punk, date girls (or boys), be Kurt Cobain, listen to The Church – when the central irony is that, to anyone with a pulse and a functioning pair of ears, the song will make you want to do all of them. And really, what is rock’n’roll good for, if not that?