Considering their albums never tend to stick around all that long, it’s easy to have missed the evolution that Joyce Manor have undergone. What was once a band peddling frantic, ragged punk rock and getting out as fast as they could has definitely become more refined over time, with 2016’s Cody being the natural endpoint. The essence of Joyce Manor remained intact, namely in how short and sharp the execution was, but the refinement and incorporation of greater indie-punk and Weezer-esque power-pop felt as though it fleshed out the formula a bit, and made for a wholly more satisfying experience.
Comparatively, Million Dollars To Kill Me continues down that route with the process of refinement. It’s easily the least scrappy that Joyce Manor have ever sounded, taking onboard indie-rock tones in greater capacity and generally dialing the pace back for an album that’s not exactly relaxed, but is definitely more restrained with less of a hangover afterwards. But that’s also the sort of compromise that doesn’t benefit Joyce Manor, and going back to the process of refinement, there are moments here where it feels as though it’s been taken too far. Sure, the sound is fine, but for songs that are barely scraping two minutes, they feel so bitty with barely anything to grab onto beyond a hook.
And it’s definitely understandable why Joyce Manor have done this, striving to mature their sound while retaining that classic punk merit, and while the results it produces are able to stand more often than not, Million Dollars To Kill Me is the first time where the front has started to crack, and the fragmentation that they’ve managed to avoid from the start begins to surface. Ansd it’s the balance between time management and impact that Joyce Manor are struggling to hit here, primarily when lower extremities of pace and volume like the gentle acoustics of I’m Not The One or the doo-wop stylings of Silly Games would benefit from being given a bit more time to work. Sure, they’re among the longest inclusions here, two-and-a-half minutes still isn’t ideal, and ends up shooting past the limits of what it always felt like this sound could achieve. They’re definitely in the minority, but that makes it more noticeable if anything.
Fortunately Joyce Manor haven’t completely lost their way, and the base of Million Dollars To Kill Me still consists of indie-rock that’s just enjoyable on its own to work, even if it’s just from tracks in isolation. It’s definitely not as self-contained as Cody was because of that, stepping away from the bigger picture of the onset of jadedness around younger people for what’s a lot more straightforward in terms of love songs and youthful reminiscence. That’s probably a wise move, too; it’d probably be even more awkward to have that similar central theme on an album that plays with diverse sounds as much as this, and thus it allows the likes of Think I’m Still In Love With You and Friends We Met Online to stand unaided. And of course, there’s Barry Johnson’s regular zoned-out delivery and subtle grasp of wit and humour (the title track’s refrain of “She’s the only one who could take you to a pawn shop and sell you for twice what your worth” always raises a smile), all of which contributes to high points that really do soar.
But that just makes the whole package that much more frustrating. Chalk it up to testing the waters to see how a fully-fledged indie-rock album would go down, and that’s a valid argument, but Million Dollars To Kill Me is an especially uneven listen, perhaps the most that Joyce Manor have ever been. If it was easier to ignore, that would be something, but it’s really not, and that’s so disappointing, particularly for a band who’ve barely put a foot wrong until this point. Still, the fact that they hit that high watermark at all is somewhat reassuring, and at the very least hints at the fact that they could make something from this framework when they pull it all together a bit more. Now though, it’s all a bit hit-or-miss.
For fans of: The Replacements, Modern Baseball, Beach Slang
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Million Dollars To Kill Me’ by Joyce Manor is released on 21st September on Epitaph Records.