Release Date: October 7th, 2016
Producer: Rob Schnapf
With the release of Cody, Joyce Manor are four LPs into their discography, which altogether combines for just over 75 minutes of music. It is an amazing feat of efficiency or perhaps hyperactivity that has up to this point been what fans have come to expect: roughly 45 seconds into a song, you’ve established the scene, the subjects, and over the next minute or so you experience a handful of emotions and more often than not encounter a legitimate hook.
Cody offers much of the same in song structure and a direct, from-and-straight-to-the heart approach to writing songs. Sonically, however, this is somewhat of a sidestep. Since their debut full length, Joyce Manor has been lumped into either a post-post-emo bin, or perhaps a rebirth of the boom of 90s-00s pop punk. While their earlier releases showed an affinity for the heyday of Epitaph and Vagrant Records, Cody’s pop leanings and strong sense of melody shows these guys were fully aware of the more mainstream MTV2 alternative occurring as well. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any track here that would have been labelled “punk” in 1998. Much of this can be attributed to producer Rob Schnapf, who is famous for his work during Elliott Smith’s final albums, which saw an evolution from solo folk production to more vast studio exploration and added textures. Most relevant to Cody, however, would be Schnapf’s experience in working with groups such as Saves the Day and the Anniversary, who both rose from the underground punk and emo scenes to record with Schnapf what would be their most “rock” records up to point.
The opening track and lead single, “Fake I.D.,” cycles through four sections of Strokesian pop rock, and honestly not a single second of its 2:20 running time is wasted. Lyrically, Barry Johnson shows one of his best hands. He conjures up a fully realized character that we know intimately based on her opinions on Kanye West (“I think he’s great. I think he’s the best. Yeah, I think he’s better than John Steinbeck.”) and then for good measure eulogizes a friend who passed in the manner that most would be envious of (“I feel sad. I miss him, he was rad.”). From there, we get “Eighteen,” a song about being at that age and the weight that comes with freedom to achieve anything, and the doubt that comes from everything up to that point giving you little reason to think that you are able to achieve. “Angel in the Snow” stays right in the pocket of jangly guitar pop and the chorus gets a lift thanks to Nate Ruess’s unmatchable high-register harmonies. Ruess’s presence could possibly be seen as foreshadowing for Joyce Manor’s breakout to a larger audience based to his underground indie rock bona fides, including an equally powerful backing vocal performance for emotional indie-poppers Straylight Run in 2004 and later collaborating with some of pop’s most consistent hit-producers.
“Do You Really Want to Not Get Better,” evokes the emo acoustic album piece (see: Brand New’s “The No Seatbelt Song”) that is destined to be fan favorite in concert, but the band and Schnapf resist the urge to build into a grandiose musical statement or a n excuse to tear some vocal chords in the name of capturing “raw emotion.” The result is the shortest song on the record, but one that gets the point across. With the album’s second single, “The Last You Heard of Me”, Johnson writes a three minute pop song about a story that probably took less than one minute to play out. The song is built around a small handful of two-note chords that Schnapf fleshes out to the kind of powerful, Buzzworthy rock that would have guaranteed heavy rotation on MTV2 and likely gain cross-over appeal alongside Semisonic and Third Eye Blind. The second half of the record begins with “Make Me Dumb,” which secretly hides a truly singalong chorus that doesn’t quite reach the level that it could have, but the song gains some value thanks to its fadeout, which has all but vanished in modern rock recordings.
Did I mention Third Eye Blind? Because Cody features the best Third Eye Blind song of the last 15 years in “Over Before It Began.” My gut tells me that it won’t be released as a single, but in a different time, this would have had some definite legs. “Reversing Machine” sounds the most like Joyce Manor’s previous record, while also giving serious nods to the aforementioned Saves the Day and Anniversary releases, and the gang sounds like they are really having fun with it. “Stairs” provides some of the more debatable lyrics on Cody, with confessionals such as “I’ll lock you in my room/And I’ll tie you to the sheets/Cause I could watch you sleep for weeks/Oh, the things you’d never see/If it were up to me.” Musically, this is again far from any punk influence, instead drawing a lineage through Jimmy Eat World and that band’s own debt to late-80s guitar pop. The album closes with its most punk sounding song, that recalls the most catchy moments from bands like the Ataris or MxPx and a melody bitten from the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.”
In all, Cody, seems like a tour through the collection in the car CD visor circa 1997-2003 of someone predisposed to heartache and outward sensitivity. Where Joyce Manor and Rob Schnapf are especially successful is at stripping down these collections of genres, which at times can strive to be so much bigger than necessary, and saying all that needs to be said in 24 minutes. As someone who hopes to see guitar-driven pop-rock exist once again, this doesn’t sound like the record that will break that back into the mainstream, but it may very well be looked back at in retrospect as a formative blueprint at what that record needs to feel like.