I don’t know why Joyce Manor’s songs are generally short. Maybe it’s an economic thing; if your songs generally aren’t more than two minutes long then maybe you can fit more of them into an opening act or spend less time in a studio recording an EP/LP. It doesn’t matter. What I do know is that Joyce Manor’s first three albums, none longer than 20 minutes, have felt like frantic sprints to a finish line I couldn’t see. Many of their songs have eschewed a traditional verse, bridge, chorus, and repeat structure that has given their music a ragged shape inviting repeat listens to feel them out. Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, the band’s second album, was a major departure from the sound they had established with their debut LP. It’s a stripped down and melancholic record obsessed with nostalgia that uses a cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star” as its centerpiece. And, at 13 minutes long, you can listen to it all the way through in the time it’d take to listen to one-and-a-half Led Zeppelin songs.
Joyce Manor’s latest album, Cody, is almost twice the length of Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired and does a lot to recall that album. But, whereas their sophomore effort displayed an entirely new range for the Torrance band, Cody ends up feeling its length. Some of the songs are longer, the lyrical content remains in-line with their previous release, and a lot of the frantic energy has dissipated with the choice to track this record slower than the previous. It feels like more Joyce Manor, for good and ill.
The post-high school unease and sense of moving through life with no direction but a series of increasingly set patterns has been an important backdrop for the band. Cody grows more obviously critical of this arrested development with tracks like “Last You Heard of Me” touching on things like aging out of smoking weed “unless I wanna go to sleep” and choosing not to pursue a possible romantic interest. There’s the sense that this, whatever “this” is, is starting to get old and it might be time for a life change. The song itself is an instant classic for the band (the kind you could figure out how to singalong to on the first listen) and proves that the decision to slow down a bit has provided the band with ample opportunities to explore different tones in the vocal delivery of the lyrical content. Lead singer Barry Johnson, riding the line between a shout and a croon on previous records, gets to display a variety of smooth tones between self-awareness and melancholy that he’ll often flip between easily thanks to the album’s change of pace.
Let’s not forget “Stairs,” now Joyce Manor’s longest song at four minutes and four seconds. The song is a slice out of the life of a 26-year-old who is terminally incapable of taking care of himself and daydreams about locking his partner up to keep her safe from the things he feels he can’t control. It’s a basic sense of humor that isn’t out of place on a pop punk record, but it becomes increasingly dark as it goes before ending in despair with the narrator asking, “What’ll I do without you?” It’s not a great place to end an album that makes a point to ask “do you really want to not get better?” on the track of the same name, so it’s up to “This Song Is a Mess and So Am I” to send everyone home happy.
And that’s sort of the problem with this album. As much as it lingers on and investigates the staid post-graduation life, it almost always makes a point to follow it up with something celebratory. “This Song Is a Mess and So Am I”, a pop punk “Your Song” that isn’t anywhere as self-centered or grating as that Elton John track, carries a celebratory tune for a lifestyle that has been painted as spiritually dire earlier on in the tracklist. That “send ‘em home happy” mentality ends up undercutting much of the album’s previous content, and one wonders if the realization at the core of “Last You Heard of Me” might have served as a more effective conclusion to the album.
Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired was a risk for Joyce Manor. Doing an album-length reflection on nostalgia that recalled more of The Smiths than any punk forebears was certainly not a direction anyone expected them to go in. Ultimately, Cody does feel perfectly within the wheelhouse that the band has built for itself and misses a sense of growth as well as the unexpected.