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Joyce Manor - Million Dollars to Kill Me Music Album Reviews

With the help of Converge guitarist and veteran metal producer Kurt Ballou, the versatile emo band continues to mature with hints of Big Star and subgenre subversion.

Even in the surprisingly experimental context of recent emo-leaning indie rock, Joyce Manor have always depended upon an impressive versatility. An accelerated, bashing cover of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” served as the theoretical centerpiece of 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, while the band’s 2014 breakthrough, Never Hungover Again, offered a masterclass in emo’s many moods—reflective, angry, sentimental, self-incriminating, passionate.

Before they even released 2016’s Cody, Joyce Manor had cemented themselves as emo’s answer to Guided by Voices, packing albums with brief melodic gems indebted to the band’s ancestry but retaining their own peculiar, scruffy charm. On that record, leader Barry Johnson and the band pushed their songs past the four-minute mark, even adding acoustic textures that genre purists liked to dis as “selling out.” But the developing songcraft on Cody’s highlights was undeniable. Closer “This Song Is a Mess But So Am I,” for instance, added ounces of fabric softener to Joyce Manor’s melodic-hardcore washing machine. Johnson crooned over spiky riffs as he tore into the the very act of songwriting: “I wrote this one for you/’Cause that’s all I could do/Sad, but it’s all true/So I guess it’ll have to do.”

On their fifth full-length, Joyce Manor continue their trend of maturation, musically and emotionally. This record began as a collection of potential solo songs for Johnson; with contributions from former Impossibles leader Rory Phillips, it’s the band’s least-punk, most melodically rich album to date. Johnson revealed during a recent Stereogum profile that he was concerned Cody sounded too much like “a rock record with Big Star riffs.” That fear seems to have vanished, as Joyce Manor sound more like the power-pop pioneers than ever on the brisk Million Dollars to Kill Me, from the sweetly sung bridge of “Think I’m Still in Love With You” to the soft strums of closer “Wildflowers.”

The depth that supports these songs owes in part to veteran producer and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, who makes his recording debut with the band here. It’s funny to think about the guy who grinds in one of music’s most intense bands working on a song like “Silly Games,” a sock-hop number that doubles as the most slow-dance-ready emo tune since Rufio’s “One Slowdance.” But Ballou’s careful hand has added a sophistication to many metal bands in the past, including his own. He situates a layer of ba-ba-ba’s just beneath the surface of “Fighting Kangaroo,” while the shoegaze-tinted “Gone Tomorrow” sways atop a bedrock of riffs through which a stray melodic line occasionally surfaces for air.

If there’s one aspect of Joyce Manor that suffers during Million Dollars, it’s Johnson’s writing. In the past, he’s often been inscrutable even at his most emotional, but the impact was there. Here, though, he sometimes dips too deeply into purple territory, singing “My friend Tommy, he does origami/Forever in the morning shade” during “Gone Tomorrow” and exclaiming “Broke-a-hontas, orange eating/Talk like that, now who’s screaming” near the end of the peppy “Up the Punx.”

But elsewhere, Johnson shares the defeated tenderness that stems from getting older and wishing to live more simply. He marvels at roadside foliage and “sunshine coming in through the open window of my bedroom” on “Wildflowers” and archly flips emo’s reputation for toxic misogyny at the start of “Big Lie.” “Girls can be kinda controlling/I wanna be controlled, I think it’d be alright,” he sings. “Everybody thinks I’m joking/If it’s funny, then hold me while I cry all night.” It’s the kind of surprising turn that epitomizes Joyce Manor’s trajectory so far. Their willingness to expand the subtleties of their sound makes Million Dollars to Kill Me an enthralling listen, even at its lowest points.

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