In the year 2011, emo was in the midst of an unlikely comeback. The genre that originated in the early 90s as “emotional hardcore” and then began to fade in the late 2000s found itself rejuvinated after seminal releases from bands like Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing. This revival was founded on the idea of returning to the roots of the genre, with emo legends such as Cap’n Jazz, Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, and more serving as major influences for the newest torchbearers. In moments such as these, it can be hard for a band to separate themselves from the rest of the newly energized crowd, but Torrance, California based punks Joyce Manor found a way to stand tall and prominent in only 18 minutes with their magnificent self titled debut.
Joyce Manor is an album that simply has no weaknesses. There are no seconds wasted, no moments unmemorable, and no songs that would dare commit the sin of not firing on all cylinders in its mere run time. Joyce Manor pack so much gold and furious emo grandeur into this small package that it doesn’t feel shorted or slight but rather balanced and fulfilling. In its wild and sloppy-drunk energy there is an efficiency, a perfection in the execution of its earworm hooks and sheer ability to rip that sets it far and above any other ~20 minute punk album. From the opening discordant chords of the first track “Orange Julius” to the last climatic moments of finale and perennial emo classic “Constant Headache”, each moment is so chock full of brilliant chaos that really, I don’t have much of a choice but to call it as I see it: perfect.
The first thing that makes itself evident on the first listen is Joyce Manor’s infectious energy and even more infectious melodies, led by frontman Barry Johnson’s uniquely baritone yell and bolstered by the band’s power chord frenzies and gut punch rhythms. These attributes aren’t exactly revolutionary, as many of their peers were angling for similar sounds, but it’s the way that the band wields these emo monikers that makes all the difference. Underneath all of the angsty explosions that define the genre lies extremely effective pop songwriting that harkens instead to their pop-punk ancestors like genre giants Blink-182 or NOFX. This is the secret to Joyce Manor’s 2-part knockout concoction: the grit and catharsis of early emo along with addictive and angry melodies of pop punk from the same era.
Take for instance, the waltzy cut “Beach Community.” The first half of the song is abound with spastic energy underlining its tight rhythm section, all behind a practically snarling Johnson belting out sinister lines like “Wait for your cue, ‘cuz my scene it ain’t over/I’ll torch up your house while your kids are at home”. But in the latter half, the song keeps the same energy while changing to sentimental balladry as Johnson, more soft-spoken now, leads a chorus of “I’ve realized it’s true/Everything reminds me of you” that practically begs you to sing along with it.
This mix is heard again many times on the album, but perhaps most potently on the mid album standout “Leather Jacket”. The song kicks off with a blitz of ambiguously rhythmic crashing cymbals and guitars sliding up and down the fretboard at will before immediately halting to just a mid-tempo drum beat and bass guitar. At this point Johnson, like on most of the album, takes the melodic lead even as his voice begins to reach guttural screaming heights.
Now would be a good of time as any to give praise to Barry Johnson’s talents as the frontman of the band. His voice isn’t perfect (would it be really be emo if it was?), but his ability to excel as a crafter of melody and as an electrifying and emotive vocalist is one of many elements that help the band stand out among their peers. His ear for tunes becomes even more apparent as the band begins to mellow out later in their discography, but the other Joyce Manor albums are a bigger discussion for another time.
The framework for the more alt-rock career route they would take is evident all over this album, in some places more than others. “Ashtray Petting Zoo”, for example, is a rollicking tune with a killer riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jawbreaker song, and “Famous Friend” is a bouncy pop-rock track that has hints of late 90s rock staples like Third Eye Blind and Everclear (also California natives). And of course, it’s difficult to talk about this album without delving into the aforementioned genre juggernaut, “Constant Headache”.
Compared to the breakneck pace of the rest of the album, this song almost comes on like a breather. It’s an anthem that stands tall on an album entirely comprised of anthems, and it accomplishes this by pulling back the cynicism and venom spitting that populates the rest of the album to make room for something that could almost be called romantic. “Constant Headache” is a steady song about a double-edged one night stand, where the experience is cherished but, as Johnson puts it: “It’s such a stubborn reminder one perfect night’s not enough”.
This song, more visibly than any other on the album, blends heart-wrenching emotional purging with a certain hint of beauty, a beauty that just makes that roaring exorcism that much more palpable and addicting. It’s an eternal drunken karaoke staple for a certain group of listeners across the world because of this. This song and the whole album’s anger and misery don’t come across as baseless whining because it’s convincing in its genuineness. Joyce Manor is representative for the whole genre of emo, in this way, because it contains a wide swath of substance and talent where one might disregard its potential.
After the genre’s image became pigeon-holed from the corporate frenzy to cash in on the scene in the mid 2000s, emo caught a reputation for being a teenager’s niche to wear black eyeliner and be over-dramatic in a way no one takes seriously. But Joyce Manor and other albums like it are proof that, while still falling into those stereotypes from time to time, emo is a genre full of talented and passionate artists that deserve consideration for their work. This album and its scene have burning and complex hearts that will be revealed to whoever is willing to pay attention, even if they seem to be only wearing them on their sleeves.