There seems to be a balance to the equation of pop-punk. Not exactly a chemical compound, but there is a mixture that most pop-punk bands seem to follow. The volume level of the guitars has to balance with the level of catchiness, however hard the drums hit has to be leveled out by the softness of the melodies, and no matter how hard and fast a band plays there has to be a slick hook for audience to sing along with. Things get interesting when that balance is toyed with and what that does to a band’s sound. Whatever way the sound swings can change a band for better or for worse.
This has been the internal war going on with Joyce Manor. The California indie rock quartet have been mixing their pop with their punk effectively since the start of the decade. The sound of their self-titled debut and their early EPs was steeped in the scratchy guitars and raucous energy of punk but there were slivers of pop melodies hidden deep. But by the time they dropped Never Hungover Again and their last studio album Cody, Joyce Manor started layering their vocals and making bouncier songs. Not exactly softening their edge but trying to harness their snot-nosed energy into a focus for their lyrics of heartbreak and introvertedness. It was the clear the balance was shifting.
Now on album five, Million Dollars to Kill Me, Joyce Manor has seemingly tipped the scales further into pop than their punk origins. Co-produced by Rory Phillips of ska-punkers The Impossibles, Joyce Manor’s latest endeavor is another quick 10-track rollout at only 22 minutes long with no song touching the three-minute mark. The production here is cleaner and crisper than anything Joyce Manor have done before, allowing the riffs and vocals of Barry Johnson and Chase Knobbe to resonate better throughout the record. That cleaner production coupled with the slower pace of the songs also makes for a different listening experience, more akin to recent releases from The Gaslight Anthem or The Pixies than the likes of The Bouncing Souls or The Promise Ring. Tracks like “Fighting Kangaroo” and “Big Lie” have a pleasant pace to them like a routine indie rock record. While Joyce Manor’s bratty charisma remains mostly intact throughout the album, it’s hard not to miss the band’s old energy that made their songwriting all the more urgent. There are still moments where the energy comes back as on “Friends We Met Online” and “Think I’m Still in Love with You,” but most of the tracks on here makes the runtime feel more lengthy than usual.
For the most part, Million Dollars to Kill Me is an album of yearning and loss of love. Many of the tracks are breakup songs, ranging from desperation (“Beat myself in to the ground/All I do is hang around/Nothing I could do or say/Is ever gonna make you wanna stay”) to bitterness (“Everybody thinks I’m joking/If it’s funny then hold me while I cry all night/Maybe we should watch it slowly/We could figure it out, it’s all a great big lie”). Fortunately Joyce Manor knows how to use lyrics to freshen up cliches as they do on the title track (“She’s the only one who can take you to a pawn shop/And sell you for twice what you’re worth/Nobody tells you it hurts to be loved).” Even “Friends We Met Online” tells a story fitting of the current time period without losing the song’s ultimate point of heartbreak (“Some people live in big apartments/Still, they’re giving you the creeps/I sit up in my bed, and I’m sick to my cyber soul/How you ever gonna teach me something I don’t even wanna know”). For all of the music’s shortcomings, Joyce Manor still knows to craft emo punk lyrics into the format of a hooky pop song.
Million Dollars to Kill Me is no colossal disappointment as Joyce Manor’s songwriting chops are thankfully intact five albums in. While it seems they wanted the somber nature of the record to be more evident, the slower pace of the songs hinders one of the band’s best features: its boundless energy. For all the effort given to improve on the pop of their sound, Joyce Manor seems to forget the merit of their punk.