Joyce Manor – 40 oz. to Fresno (Album Review)
Surviving as a punk band is tough. Even the most beloved bands are subject to a special kind of mundane burnout where, quite understandably, they figure getting together to make an album and tour just isn’t worth navigating the time off from work. After 14 years and six albums together, Joyce Manor has so far escaped that fate.
On “You’re Not Famous Anymore,” a track from their new record 40 oz. to Fresno, frontman Barry Johnson seems to address someone who didn’t. “You’re working in a grocery store,” frontman Barry Johnson points out. “No meet and greet, no UK tour, now you’re not famous anymore.”
There may be a hint of gloating there. Joyce Manor is decidedly still indie famous, as far as indie punk bands go; they recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their debut album with two nights at the sizable Hollywood Palladium.
They’ve achieved cult longevity unlike some of the bands they once shared bills with. The reward is lower stakes, releasing their music to a plateau of long-time fans rather than expecting too many new ones. As a result, 40 oz. to Fresno is less consciously ambitious than the band’s last two albums.
While 2016’s Cody embraced glossy ’90s alt-rock, and 2018’s Million Dollars To Kill Me let them jump ship into ’80s power-pop, 40 oz. to Fresno’s readiest comparison point is simply Joyce Manor itself. They’ve figured out the outer limits of Joyce Manor; now it’s about perfecting what’s within them.
That gives them the freedom to focus less on the big picture and zero in on the songs. “Dance With Me” and “Don’t Try” feature two of their catchiest choruses ever; the former jangly and Pixies-esque, and the latter a driving outburst of pop-punk.
Meanwhile, the lead single “Gotta Let It Go” tries something they haven’t really done before: sounding absolutely enormous. Its weighty production works beautifully to prop up the fired-up-but-nowhere-to-go vibe of the song.
The album is over before you really know it’s begun, and it isn’t cohesive or groundbreaking enough for that to feel as satisfying as on previous albums. But the songs are studiously, almost mathematically propellant, creating a rush of exhilaration that feels equally earned.
Johnson’s witty and sardonic songwriting is mostly the same as ever. He plays the role of someone who would be romantic if he wasn’t so misanthropic—or the other way around. The narrator is always reaching for connection, then waving it away like a stubborn kid.
“It’s not a confession if I was just messing,” he asserts on “Gotta Let It Go.” On “NBTSA,” he wants to confess a secret, then a line later spits: “I don’t know why I want you to know.” Many of the experiences he narrates are lit with the glow of reckless youth—falling in love in a park, f*cking in the back seat of a car.
But there’s also a new streak to the subject matter that betrays the fact Johnson is in his mid-30s now. There’s the disillusionment of “You’re Not Famous Anymore,” while a similar world-weariness shows up in “Gotta Let It Go”—the thing that must be let go of alternates between a relationship and the narrator’s own youth.
But there’s a little bit of lopsided optimism in “Dance With Me.” Johnson addresses the rag-tag crowd that Joyce Manor make music for—“You’ve never been an addict, you’ve just got a little habit that you couldn’t cope without”—culminating in a kind of f*ck-it theme song.
Towards the end of it, he asks: “Could it be that the room’s empty and I’m just tearing out my heart for the sound guy?” The possibility of fading into obscurity is on his mind. But 40 oz. to Fresno doesn’t seem to be an attempt to counteract that, as much as to get the most out of Joyce Manor as a vehicle while people are still listening.
This is the Joyce Manor album for Joyce Manor fans—a loving, uncynical refinement of the band’s best.
Joyce Manor is a band who have never relied on gimmicks. Since forming in Torrance, California, in 2008, the band—vocalist/guitarist Barry Johnson, bassist Matt Ebert and guitarist Chase Knobbe—have built-up a feverish fanbase by writing catchy, pop-punk songs that seem straightforward on the surface but teeming with carefully crafted nuances upon multiple listens.
This is undoubtedly true of the band’s sixth studio album 40 oz. To Fresno, an album that has songs that span the last eight years yet comes together to form a cohesive album that marks the next chapter of Joyce Manor.
“This is an interesting record because the final track ‘Secret Sisters’ was actually a B-side from [2014’s] Never Hungover Again and ‘NBTSA’ is actually a reworked version of ‘Secret Sisters’ that barely even resembles the original song,” Johnson explains. Although Joyce Manor was planning on taking a break prior to the pandemic, Johnson soon began writing to keep boredom at bay, and much of the remainder of 40 oz. Fresno came out of that period of focused songwriting.
Produced by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Tokyo Police Club) with Motion City Soundtrack’s Tony Thaxton on drums, the bulk of these songs were recorded in two separate sessions at Mant Sounds in Glassell Park, California. “The whole process was just really easy and it was also fun because as a band we hadn’t hung out very much lately,” Johnson explains.