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.

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