Joyce Manor expand their sound on the excellent ‘Cody’ (listen to it)
Joyce Manor return this week with Cody, their fourth album and first with producer Rob Schnapf. Rob's probably best known for his several collaborations with Elliott Smith, but more direct precedents for Cody include his role as producer on Saves the Day's Stay What You Are and In Reverie, and The Anniversary's Your Majesty -- albums where a punk/emo band wanted to branch out and go in new directions, all while sounding warmer and brighter than ever. Cody does this too, and it's likely going to have more people than ever saying that this pop punk band wrote an indie rock record. The band is actually already saying it themselves. "I feel like it’s definitely more indie rock and less pure, unadulterated pop-punk," singer Barry Johnson told CLRVYNT. It's also the rare record that manages to retain most of what fans already love about the band -- and Joyce Manor have some pretty diehard fans -- while exploring new ground. It's the best album yet by a band that already proved themselves. And it may very well be the best rock album of 2016 released thus far.
If Cody does get a rep for being Joyce Manor's indie rock record, it's not like this came out of nowhere. They perfected the melodic punk formula right off the bat with their 2011 self-titled debut LP, an album that's about as good as melodic punk albums come. For years to come, it's gonna go down as some kid's Dookie or Dude Ranch or Milo Goes to College or Your Favorite Weapon. "Constant Headache" is already punk rock canon. Instead of trying to make a better punk album, a year later they hooked up with Deafheaven producer Jack Shirley and made the nine-song, 13-minute Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. Some songs combined the lo-fi brevity of Guided by Voices with Jawbreaker-like punk anthems. One had a drum machine ("See How Tame I Can Be"). Another borrowed crooning jangle pop from The Smiths ("Bride of Usher"). There's two minute-long acoustic songs, and there's a punked-up cover of "Video Killed The Radio Star." It's a raw, eccentric, challenging record, and the band mostly disowns it (though they sometimes change up a couple of its songs and play them live). It's the Pinkerton to Joyce Manor's Blue Album.
Of All Things didn't really make too much of an impact when it came out, because Joyce Manor's punk fanbase would rather hear the old stuff and the people who would have liked Of All Things weren't listening to it. It came out in 2012, the same year critically-adored indie rock bands Cloud Nothings and Japandroids made major breakthroughs with punk/emo-ish records (not to mention Titus Andronicus dropped the underrated and likeminded Local Business), and Joyce Manor were giving them all a run for their money. They had the catharsis of Japandroids, the self-deprecating rock star frontman of Titus, and the Weezery-but-kinda-dissonant songs of Cloud Nothings. The only real difference between them was that those three bands came up winning over aging music critics at hiply curated shows and Joyce Manor came up winning over kids at punk houses.
Fast forward two years and Joyce Manor put Hop Along's Joe Reinhardt in the producer chair, signed to Epitaph, and went back to a more straightforward punk sound for Never Hungover Again. In the time since Of All Things, critics started paying a little more attention to punk albums on Epitaph, and Never Hungover Again was not surprisingly Joyce Manor's best-received album yet. It's a great record (we called it one of the best of 2014), but Cody makes it sound transitional in hindsight.
There's nothing as obviously Smiths-influenced as "Bride of Usher" on Cody, but you can feel Moz's presence all over the album. The tempos are a little slower, the melodies tend to favor beauty over dissonance, and Joyce Manor are writing longer songs than ever before (the whole album is just about a whopping 25 minutes!). They work in their first acoustic song since Of All Things ("Do You Really Want To Not Get Better" -- which has backing vocals from Phoebe Bridgers), but this time it feels carefully planned and perfectly inserted into the album, rather than hasty and "reactionary." Not to mention Rob Schnapf made this their most pristine-sounding record yet. Still, their knack for writing songs that will get crowds moving and singing back at the top of their lungs has not faltered. The experiments of Of All Things and the fun of Never Hungover Again are both here, and Cody is usually beating both of those albums at their own game.
For one, Barry hasn't been this sharp with a pen since "Constant Headache." First single "Fake I.D." tells a story that starts off sounding like a hot date, until the girl asks him what he thinks of Kanye West. "I think he's great, I think he's the best," she tells him. "I think he's better than John Steinbeck and I think he's better than Phil Hartman. Don't you agree?" Second single "Last You Heard of Me" is similarly conversational, recalling that time Sonia was going to the parking lot to probably smoke weed. "I'd go with but I don't touch the stuff... unless I wanna fall asleep," Barry admits before the band fully kicks in. On "Reversing Machine" he's high on LSD as he sees the campus security approaching. On "Stairs" he's 26 and still lives with his parents and can't do laundry or dishes. He's honest and relatable, but also witty and clever. He's the lyricist that the people who like Jesse Lacey and Stephen Malkmus always wanted. Not to mention he's got an arsenal of hooks to deliver his words.
The way things are looking in 2016, Joyce Manor are pretty much the ideal rock band right now. Even as they clean up their sound, they retain their punk cred with the old heads (it was only two years ago that they did a tour and split with cult legends Toys That Kill), and they still drive young kids crazy at shows. They're not too cool for school to really rock, but there is a coolness to them. They have none of the polished Warped Tour/Hot Topic/AltPress world in them that even some of their most talented friends have (like recent tourmates Modern Baseball and upcoming tourmates The Hotelier). Cody has the ability to bring Smiths fans, old-school punks and young emo kids together. It's comfort food for the former two groups, and it could very easily be foundational for the latter.
Cody is out now on Epitaph. Stream it: