Published Sep 19, 2018Joyce Manor sit at a bizarre musical nexus. Fans of hardcore, pop punk, indie rock and even power-pop can all find something to love in their divergent catalogue. And while that enables the Torrance, CA quartet to share bills with pretty much any band with a guitar, they still manage to leave some sub-group of fans feeling abandoned with each release.
That's a hefty expectation live up to, especially for a group who most people outside of music-nerd circles would simply describe as "upbeat guitar rock." Thankfully, Johnson and his bandmates seem to relish dashing the hopes and dreams of their fans. For album number five they teamed up with label-mate and fellow iconoclast Kurt Ballou of Converge and somehow ended up making a record indebted to the Cars.
That's not to say that A Million Dollars to Kill Me is a synth-heavy new wave record. Far from it. But the chugging guitar riffs and pop-minded song structures are the simplest of the band's career, something the band and Ballou worked hard to achieve. Gone is the bouncy energy of Never Hung Over Again and the swinging backbeat of Cody. It seems that after a decade of hopping between genres, Joyce Manor finally said "fuck it," stripped everything to its mid-tempo bones leaving the spotlight firmly on Johnson's voice and words, ultimately the core linkage across their five albums. And he mostly rises to the occasion.
"Think I'm Still in Love With You," a song about being in love with the idea of still being in love, puts his knack for self-analysis on full display in an anthem for romantic over-thinkers, while "Gone Tomorrow" contemplates whether any of this even matters. Elsewhere, Johnson's intentions are more obscured; it's hard to tell if "Friends We Met Online" is biting satire or sincere appreciation. Maybe the answer lies in album highlight "Big Lie" where he confesses, "Everybody thinks I'm joking. If it's funny then hold me while I cry all night."
Love gone sour and romantic self-loathing are themes Johnson returns to throughout, yielding some of the record's best one-liners. The title track in particular packs 'em in: "She's the only one who could take you to a pawn shop and sell you for twice what you're worth," he sings before finally admitting that "one day you will realize you are nothing without her. You're an asshole from a bar and you're never happy."
Joyce Manor's albums tend to take a while to fully absorb, a quality that's only been exacerbated as they've lost some of the initial punk fury of their early releases. But they have a way of sticking in your craw and drawing you back in. I was initially dismissive of 2016's Cody, but the record ended up near the top of my year-end list.
Time will tell if A Million Dollars to Kill Me can match its predecessor — it hasn't quite for me — but its certainly another singular release in a career that's defined by them. (Epitaph)