Have Joyce Manor actually grown up? Two years ago, plenty of folks seemed to think so: their fourth record, Cody, saw the former pop-punk underdogs abandoning the juvenile underpinnings of the genre for more careful perspectives and looser arrangements. It was a shift into that liminal space between teenagehood and middle age, where adult life finds you reconciling and repeating the anxieties of your youth. Like on album highlight “Eighteen,” which reminded us that teenage insecurities resolve with age, or “Stairs,” where frontman Barry Johnson admitted yet, that at 26, he still lived with his parents. Some might call this maturity. But on Million Dollars to Kill Me, one wonders where even that went.
Million Dollars boasts a score of flimsy, sophomoric thoughts. Album opener “Fighting Kangaroo” is a love song as confused as its title: “There was nothing that I could do / Became a fighting kangaroo,” bellows Johnson on the first verse, as if the literal image is a universally accepted metaphor. (And for what? Are we all just angry marsupials, brawling it out in the name of love?) Then there are wailing tracks like “Big Lie,” where Johnson jokes, “Girls can be kind of controlling / I wanna be controlled, I think it’d be alright.” It’s not all so bad— as long as you ignore the tired trope that the lyric inevitably leans on.
What disappoints is how earnest Joyce Manor are in this sloppy quest for humor. Johnson thinks of it as “trying to simplify.” But this simplicity comes at the expense of what made much of their earlier work so great: that cheeky propensity for exacting sarcasm and self-mockery; not some deliberate commitment to vague ideas. But at least the Joyce Manor boys— ahem, men, lest we forget they’re not as young as they seem— made simplicity work as far as the record’s sound goes.
Million Dollars slaps by with anthemic drum fills and familiar crunchy guitar riffs a la Weezer, who the band admits are a huge influence. It’s no wonder, then, that they recruited Andrew Scheps, expert engineer on Weezer’s Red Album (and masterful mixer for records by Green Day, Adele, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers— the list goes on). It’s a recipe for Joyce Manor at their slickest power pop yet, even as it lacks the narrative depth we’re used to.
Still, there’s got to be a way to balance the two. Take the title track, for example. A chugging bass builds and breaks to a feedback crash, noising off to a revealing chorus: “She’s the only one who can take you to a pawn shop / And sell you for twice what you’re worth / Nobody tells you it hurts to be loved,” sighs Johnson. It’s quietly brilliant. Whereas the earlier “Big Lie” lazes on an empty cliché, “Million Dollars to Kill Me” illuminates it. A woman is still in control here, but we know why— soon Johnson reveals, “You are nothing, nothing without her / You’re an asshole from a bar / On a break, in a break room / And you’re never happy.” He’s a sad sack out of love, while his ex is already over it.
This honesty is what real maturity looks like. It’s a relief to see it persist somewhere on A Million Dollars to Kill Me. Joyce Manor just ought to rely on it again.
Watch Joyce Manor’s 2018 Paste studio session below: