There comes a point in every pop-punk band’s lifecycle when you, a fan and hopeless devotee to the sub-three-minute song, must ask yourself: What am I really hoping for at this point? Do I want more of the same? A return to form? An attempt at progression that will either (a) be cool or (b) result in some truly heinous music? The kind that taints the rest of a catalog you otherwise cherish and consider a fundamental piece of your personal development, for better or worse? I’m not sure there’s a right answer, but after five beloved albums, Joyce Manor have finally dragged me to this point: 40 oz. to Fresno, their latest LP, is an existentialist mirror that forces the listener to confront their own mortality. (Just me?) It also has riffs.

The Torrence, Cali., band made a name for themselves through back-to-back, scream-along, emo-tinged punk albums (so, emo but edgy), 2011’s self-titled debut and 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. A litany of Tumblr lyric edit posts followed. In 2014, they released Never Hungover Again, inspiring a chorus of critical acclaim from publications that were dying to prove that emo punk was sick, actually—and it worked. Shedding the gruff production of their earlier albums and blending their brand of energetic punk with highly melodic songwriting, Joyce Manor were able to create a next step for their band that seemingly pleased everyone who heard it. Then came 2016’s Cody and 2018’s Million Dollars to Kill Me: Gone were the perfunctory punk days; frontman Barry Johnson leaned into his obvious talent for pop melody. The emotionally stunted emo-punks (also known as “fans”) who grew to love them around Never Hungover Again cried out for a return to the sound of their past. On some level, I can understand that impulse. Watching your favorite bands venture into pop music is a death knell for your youth. And, to be fair, Cody has genuine missteps, but with songs like “Fake I.D.” and “Last You Heard of Me,” it was still easy to be excited about where the band was headed. Million Dollars to Kill Me delivers on every possibility set up by Cody; it’s great pop songwriting balanced against enough energy and urgency to make you feel like you could still shout along to it in a basement or cry in your car. But that’s four years in the rearview.

Watching your favorite bands venture into pop music is a death knell for your youth

In 2022, we’ve got 40 oz. to Fresno. Johnson has said that the album is inspired by early Joyce Manor tours, almost begging someone to call it a “return to form.” On paper, it could be: It’s under 20 minutes! There’s a cover on it! But Joyce Manor’s early music is messy, energetic pop-punk that feels like sweating, smiling, and screaming inside your local 250-cap venue. On 40 oz. to Fresno, the highs hit hard, but there’s little variation. It sounds less like a return to form than forced nostalgia—in a word, it’s confused.

40 oz. to Fresno opens with “Souvenir,” an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark cover that feels like it was included only to work out some Weezer-indebted anxious guitar parts, an outlier on the album overall. “NBTSA” follows, originally released as a fuzz-laden contribution to Polyvinyl’s 4-Track Singles Series and lauded in YouTube comments for recalling their scrappy past. That version sounds like it could be a lost demo; the polished album version lacks the raw grit to feel complete. “You’re Not Famous Anymore” isn’t lacking charm, with its quintessentially snotty lyrics about a former “child star on methamphetamines,” losing their sense of autonomy with their fame—but it's flat without the melodic virtuosity that makes a similar song, “Famous Friend,” a stand-out of their 2011 eponymous album.

None of this is to say that I think 40 oz. to Fresno is a disappointing sixth album. “Dance With Me” is a triumph. It’s ascendant indie-punk with a lyrical admission of a substance abuse problem, panic attacks, wondering why everybody’s stealing from Best Buy, and “just tearing out my heart for the sound guy”—a razor-sharp dance tune with a killer guitar solo. The heavy drums and strained singing of "Secret Sisters" feel like they could unravel at any moment; the thrill is in the free fall. You want urgency? Hit play on “Gotta Let It Go.”

Just like when I was 16, I’d rather hear my least favorite Joyce Manor song a hundred times in a row than most other music. But the central question remains: What do I want from this band right now? After spending time with 40 oz. to Fresno, the answer is probably just a few great songs to debate with friends I’ve met online. Or maybe this record simply exists as confirmation that a song under two minutes can be just as special as one that stretches three times as long (the shimmering guitars of the indie-punk “Reason to Believe” is worth your time and consideration). Or maybe it’s not about my desires at all. Maybe 40 oz. to Fresno is simply an album you grow to love or grow to hate. At the very least, you’ll never be bored.

With those considerations, 40 oz. to Fresno is a totally pleasant Joyce Manor record. They just don’t make albums like they did 10 years ago, and won’t ever again, and that’s fine. Honestly, for the sake of the emotional growth of everybody involved, that’s gotta be for the best.

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