by Mia Hughes
Joyce Manor make it seem easy. As if their spot-on combination of heart-panging emotion, dry wit and instantly gratifying melody tumbles onto record without a second thought. In the same vein as forefathers like Jawbreaker and Weezer, they’re the kind of band that wrap themselves tight around a person’s heart easily and without making much of a fuss of it; their songs open, straightforward, inviting. And while for a good few years now they’ve increasingly eschewed the rough-and-tumble punk of earlier days in favour of more nuanced indie rock, they’ve never fallen into traps of over-complication or over-intricacy, nor have they ever bored. It’s a balance that only a band comfortable in their own skin could strike.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Million Dollars To Kill Me – the band’s fifth offering – is just as solid a Joyce Manor album as any that has come before. Rather, it’s a satisfying confirmation of what we’ve come to expect from them; that much is obvious from the first track. ‘Fighting Kangaroo’ comes out swinging with every move in the Joyce Manor playbook: sharp melodies moulded to a sharp beat, sweet harmonies and bittersweet lyrics. “Of all these broken promises that found me in the end / You’re the one that I pretend was enough,” goes the chorus – there are those heart pangs. Elsewhere, frontman Barry Johnson sings, “By the time that I found you / There was nothing that I could do / Became a fighting kangaroo / But it was never your fault.” That’s an addition to a discography-wide catalogue of Barryisms: charmingly abstract, yet direct in their abstraction. I don’t, for example, know what the fuck an ‘ashtray petting zoo’ is (from their first-album cut of the same name), but that’s not the point; the picture is painted all the same.
The band called on a colourful cast of collaborators for Million Dollars, each lending a distinct touch that still blends seamlessly into the record as a whole. Rory Allen Phillips of The Impossibles co-wrote with Johnson on three songs (‘Wildflowers’, ‘Silly Games’ and ‘Friends We Met Online’), a partnership that brought about some of the strongest songwriting on the record. Meanwhile, it was mixed by Andrew Scheps, a man who’s worked with Green Day, Beyoncé, Adele, and pretty much anyone else who’s ever headlined an arena. The result is a mix that sounds huge, yet intimate – like if you transposed a sweaty basement show into Madison Square Garden. At the helm of it all was Kurt Ballou, the guitarist of metalcore legends Converge who is easily as well known for his work as producer for bands such as Orchid, American Nightmare, Code Orange, Nails – the list is long and very, very heavy. On paper, he’s an odd choice for this record, which at times sees Joyce Manor’s songwriting the furthest from heavy that it’s ever been. But upon closer listening, his involvement seems to be a stroke of genius. His production adds weight to the heavier tracks (‘Million Dollars to Kill Me’, ‘Up the Punks’) while injecting a subtle yet compelling grit into the softer ones.
Take, for example, ‘Silly Games’ – unquestionably an album highlight for anyone who’s not counting on the traditional high-octane Joyce Manor sound. It’s a track that could have slotted in easily on Pet Sounds (if Pet Sounds had been produced by a member of Converge, that is). The dynamics remain reserved throughout, the tempo leisurely – it moves at more of a drift than a charge. Johnson’s vocals are soft, gentle. The graceful melody is guided by piano plinks. But there’s a hard edge lurking in the form of omnipresent distorted guitar, at times breaking into an agitated solo melody before the vocals return to smooth it over. Ballou manages the whole thing excellently, each part of the recording perfectly comfortable where it needs to be and perfectly jarring where it needs to be. The interplay between songwriting and production is at full strength here, each element amplifying the other’s brilliance.
The most stripped-back moment of the album comes with ‘I’m Not The One’. It’s not the first time Johnson has proven himself adept at acoustic songwriting: ‘Drainage’ from 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired and ‘Do You Really Want To Not Get Better?’ from 2016’s Cody, each just Barry and an acoustic guitar, are two of the most affecting moments of the band’s discography. But neither one of those songs stretches far past a minute in length. At two and a half minutes, this is the longest acoustic Joyce Manor song yet, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Backed by a gorgeous guitar melody, Johnson takes a witty look at the wealthy (“Check out the knife on the millionaire’s wife, getting all unhinged / Trying to decide who’s good and who’s just rich / Took all of his money and she burned it in a ditch”), before turning to indict members of his own scene (“Dog at the door who’s the king of hardcore ‘cause he’s always been / Booking the shows where they sell the most clothes ‘cause they’re so limited”). It’s a new kind of subject matter for Johnson, more often found writing abstract musings on relationships and friendships, yet it doesn’t feel out of place – he takes it in his stride without a stumble.
Again evoking the ever-convenient Weezer and Jawbreaker comparisons, it has always been Johnson’s lyricism that elevates a good Joyce Manor song to a great one. Million Dollars, as with each preceding album, only sees him grow in his lyrical versatility and accuracy; every emotional punch lands exactly where he was aiming, whether metaphor (“She’s the only one who could take you to a pawn shop and sell you for twice what you’re worth”) or bluntly literal (“Don’t you ever feel lonely? Baby, I’ve been lonely my whole life”). He never loses control as he deftly flits between feelings and moods – from the wistful ‘Fighting Kangaroo’, to the scathing title track, to the despondent ‘Wildflowers’ – each one delivered with his trademark angular sense of humour, while still retaining complete earnestness.
It’s not often that a band reaches their fifth album without either becoming mechanical and cheapening the things that once made them loved, or remodelling their sound completely. But five albums in, Joyce Manor are still comfortable in their own skin – and so Million Dollars To Kill Me is no remodel, but a natural extension of the path the band have been laying album-by-album. It’s familiar but never formulaic, fresh but never disorientating. They expand their boundaries, but the centre point remains the same – open, straightforward, inviting and fucking brilliant songwriting. And they make it all seem so damn easy.