Dig into the layers of Joyce Manor’s newest album, and you’ll discover just how unconventionally scrabbled together this can actually feel, and how some bizarre decisions compound that. It opens with a cover of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Souvenir and closes with Secret Sisters, a B-side from 2014, all fitted in a package whose name comes from an autocorrected misinterpretation of Sublime’s 40 Oz. To Freedom. And yet, all of that seems rather on-brand for a band whose name has become synonymous with albums that’ll strip the alt-punk sound down to its core elements, knock it all out in under 20 minutes, and still come out with a strong listen. It’s the ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ ethos of modern punk personified to a fault, and the fact that Joyce Manor have gotten this far on what some might view as a pretty truncated approach to music is impressive stuff. But on this album, it’s not clicking nearly as well as it usually does, and it can be attributed to a multitude of factors. Or more accurately, factors working in tandem, as Joyce Manor’s hop into more mid-tempo lighter combined with song lengths that back away from the two-minute-and-change sweet spot can lead to this feeling rather thinly spread. Between the lack of punk scrappiness that always held together even the most rudimentary structuring style, and how this current sound doesn’t particularly accommodate said style, it leads to the feeling of something being taken away to no greater benefit, magnified by a 17-minute runtime that, under these circumstances, can be overly sparse. It’s telling how the two songs that cross two minutes are empirically the most satisfying; in the cases of both Souvenir and Dance With Me, they’re just as simplistic in terms of how they’re structured, but they feel complete for what the power-pop context demands. There’s a chance to let the catchiness meld into a full song, or in the case of the former, bring in a really sweet guitar line that’s so iridescently fresh and clear within it. Elsewhere, the hooks are definitely there, but that’s all they have. It becomes less of a case of prioritising the most infectious moments so far ahead of everything else, and more a collection of fragments that feel as though they deserve to be slotted into more complete pieces.
It needs to be said that this isn’t Joyce Manor being lazy, either. There’s undeniable vision when it comes to what they’ve made here, in that they’re up to their sixth album and are clearly trying to slide into an older, more mature guise. When it comes to Barry Johnson’s vocals, he’s the unequivocal gold star placed on that target, very refined and Menzingers-esque to fit the burnished alt-punk expectation. In fact, you could go even further—in its composite parts, 40 Oz. To Fresno paints that forward-facing view as something that Joyce Manor are undeniably equipped for. There’s still a bit of punk antsiness in NBTSA and Secret Sisters, but the touches of grunge and indie-rock on Reason To Believe and Gotta Let It Go see them fall rather cleanly in line with something like older Weezer and pull it off well. There’s also the firmness of the bass and drums to accentuate how little Joyce Manor care for wasted space, and writing that’s generally solid for the band’s typical angles, but rises above when Johnson’s ear for increased wit and detail comes through on You’re Not Famous Anymore and Dance With Me. It’s all generally pleasant to listen to in how snappy and quick-moving it is, even with the fact that it could’ve been so much more had pretty much everything just had a bit more raw content to it. That’s possible to do without overrunning Joyce Manor’s self-imposed quota—they aren’t going to turn into Dream Theater overnight—but 40 Oz. To Fresno winds up taking two steps back for its one forward. The seeds of good ideas and execution aren’t hard to see, and they’d culminate in a much cleaner way if they didn’t feel so starved for actual songs to pad out the hooks. It’s all well and good to put the most work in there, and that’s done wonders for Joyce Manor in the past, but more balance wouldn’t go amiss if this si something they’re hoping to stick with. If it is, a likable sound still needs something about it to like.
For fans of: Weezer, The Menzingers, Pixies
‘40 Oz. To Fresno’ by Joyce Manor is released on 10th June on Epitaph Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall