July 14, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

Maybe alienation is a strong word, but some Joyce Manor fans probably felt alienated by 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. A nine-track, 13-minute flurry of non-repeating moods and ideas, of quietly distant acoustic guitars, Smiths-laced pop-rock, and an aggressive cover of the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star,” the album seemed to be an overt reaction to the fan-friendly, poppy straightforwardness of the band’s 2011 eponymous debut. It was a studio-heavy project full of songs that wouldn’t, and didn’t, easily translate to the band’s live shows. An experiment, even. Critics loved it; fans were a little less universally enthusiastic. “Violent Inside” and “Comfortable Clothes” weren’t getting the same reaction live as “Constant Headache,” “Beach Community” or any other song from Joyce Manor.

The thing about a band completely subverting expectations, especially when following up such a beloved debut, is that it becomes a pattern if it’s done for more than one album, and with that comes a lot of risk. Subvert expectations once, and the fans will stick around; do it twice or more, and the band risks garnering a reputation they may not want. Fans are smarter than ever now, and they pick up on that stuff. While its members aren’t rich by any conceivable stretch, Joyce Manor make the bulk of their money as a band while touring. In a weird way, they’ve kind of set themselves up to only write and perform “hits” for the immediate future. A revelation of a first record will do that to a band sometimes.

Never Hungover Again, out July 22 on Epitaph and streaming at NPR right now, seems primed to reconcile and reinvigorate those aforementioned alienated sections of Joyce Manor’s fervent, stagedive-happy fanbase. It’s apparent that the band wanted to write a record that would one hundred percent translate to the stage. At ten songs and 19 minutes, it’s crisply presented and eternally replayable. (Well-intentioned listeners wishing aloud that the band would write longer songs and longer records: Why? Your own conventions of what a song should or shouldn’t be cannot be imposed on a band unless perhaps you are in that band. It reeks of entitlement. If a song, whether it’s a minute long or 20 minutes long, represents a fully-formed artistic idea, then why does its length matter? The world, and even punk rock, has more 3:30 songs than we’ll ever need, and a lot of them could be just as effective if shortened. The age-old “always leave them wanting more” mantra applies here, too.)

The album is also profoundly sad. Barry Johnson, sounding more vocally confident than he ever has, hits every note with seeming ease, a stark contrast to Joyce Manor’s earlier work when he was more monotone or reaching depending on the song. Lyrically, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Though he sounds assured (if not an octave higher, like on “Christmas Card”), Johnson is portraying distinct vulnerability and varying degrees of self-loathing in his words certain to evoke those types of feelings we don’t often share out loud with other people, and struggle to even acknowledge within our own heads. “Falling in Love Again” in particular evokes this sort of worldview.

And, though the songs are fairly straightforward in tempo and composition, they also exhibit a lot of growth, showing that the Joyce Manor’s desire to experiment and subvert expectations has just moved inward, rather than completely dying. The keys that elevate “Falling in Love Again,” the noodly guitar riffs that surround “End of the Summer,” the tightly-wound power-pop of “Victoria,” the omnipresent jangle of “Heated Swimming Pool,” and other moments really give Never Hungover Again a personality atypical of a punk record, one that’s moody without ever being overly brooding and, given its brevity, doesn’t leave enough time for that anyway.