It might be on the first listen, it might be after a year, but chances are at some point in listening to The Joy Formidable, you will discover complete ignorance as to what the songs are about. Like watching a foreign film without translation, you rely on clues to the plot, observing character’s reactions, lighting changes, and the score’s rises and falls to provide emotional cues. But really, the understanding is just a hypothesis that most don’t bother to test.
Scanning Google’s first dozen reviews of debut The Big Roar reveals that not only were insights into Ritzy Bryan’s lyrics as rare as the California condor, but most ignore them completely. In interviews, Bryan reveals that global politics and Native American mythology are lyrical focuses of sophomore album Wolf’s Law, with song “The Leopard And The Lung” specifically about Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai. These bold lyrical projects are certainly creative, but they also require annotated copies for comprehension, inciting more disinterest than curiosity in all but the most devoted fans. And The Joy Formidable makes this choice easy, with quiet-loud-quiet grandeur, pristine production and hooks that offer stand-alone statements to sing along without context. It’s radio-ready, big screen-ready, arena-ready, natural and gratifying enough to allow for enjoyment without rationalization.
On Wolf’s Law, The Joy Formidable’s quest to break through to the same mainstream they flirted with while opening for Foo Fighters and Muse is front-and-center. All but a few tracks could be touted as a single, though in the same breath, it is hard to pick a standout from them, their defining moments tied to a choice on their pedal board. Opening with actual singles “The Ladder Is Ours” and “Cholla” earns the group bonus points for landing the combination as a strong start—the former already occupying a small space of consciousness from the band’s placement in a recent Jawbone commercial, and the latter raising the drama, letting a crisp guitar riff speak through a Pumpkins-borrowed fuzz distortion, demanding the audience to notice its size, when its real strength is its familiarity.
If you listened to the radio in the mid-’90s—or even later, when bands like The Killers, Silversun Pickups and Muse had moments where their sound seemed impossible to pin—The Joy Formidable is easy to accept. It’s those who expect the band to be reaching beyond their calculated peaks and lulls, to be as challenging as they are mindlessly gratifying, that will be disappointed by Wolf’s Law. When the band attempts to expand their palette, the road becomes bumpy, but the slickness of their standard songs give their missteps dignity, like a starlet appearing most beautiful without makeup.
“Maw Maw Song” delves head-first into the metallic prog on which Muse make their living, but it delivers what could be Tenacious D mimicking Sabbath, complete with a talkbox backbone that could be a teenager singing their air guitar solo. It’s a ridiculous song, but lovably over-the-top, changing tempos on a dime, sure that each complication is an improvement. Closer “The Turnaround” also attempts a home run, but Bryan has her limitations, and a glammy, Freddie Mercury-inspired, spotlight-stealing climax is just not in her range, with the emotional release the song tries to inspire never arriving.
The most successful song is the intimate “Silent Treatment,” which has appeared during the band’s encore for the last year. Acoustic neck slides and between-line breaths only add to the stir, and Bryan’s lyrics invite investment, with ambiguous descriptions of a relationship at odds; it’s unclear whether the object is a lover, a country or a god. “Silent Treatment” is left to hang on for dear life, though, with no connection the the music that surrounds it. It’s a near frustration that The Joy Formidable seem content with the radio-ready, studio craftiness that the band has practically perfected. At this, young rock fans could do much worse, but that’s not something to get excited about.