Rock Album Review: Joyce Manor’s “40 oz. to Fresno” — Songs for a Burning Planet

By Alexander Szeptycki

The album isn’t a dull listen because it hammers home the high anxiety that many are feeling, particularly in California, land of the forever drought and endless forest fires.

Joyce Manor. Photo: Elena de Soto

The suburbs of Los Angeles are a study in contradiction: equal measures eye-watering beauty and unending boredom. White sands and fair weather sit alongside sweltering deserts of asphalt dotted with dusty strip malls and theme parks.

Torrance’s Joyce Manor emerged from this volatility in the late aughts, reveling in such Lebowskian antics as day drinking and a recreational bowling league. The band’s music draws on a succinct and hooky blend of Southern California’s angsty rock classics: the self-aware bratty whine of Blink-182 interwoven with a languid and sludgy sound that suggests Weezer. This is music for when neverending cloudless skies clash with your depression.

Joyce Manor’s new album, 40 oz. to Fresno, captures this malaise but does it in a blink of an eye. The disc blurs by in under 20 minutes: the intro track “Souvenir” is the only one of the nine tunes that breaks three minutes. “My obsession, it’s my creation/You’ll understand, it’s not important now,” sings lead vocalist Barry Johnson in a nasally timbre. As he makes his point, the growling backing guitars shift into a high pitched whine and the hi hats launch into a wash of noise. The cacophony of the track crashes into the dreamy disaffection of the vocals, creating an uneasy tension.

That unease is pervasive across 40 oz. to Fresno. There’s the sense that we’ve all just survived some disaster — and full recovery is impossible. Take “NBTSA,” a track that harps on adolescent despair. The drums and guitars are locked in at breakneck pace, a tightly wound pop-punk groove that wraps around shrill, almost spoken, lyrics. The chorus’s hook  is an attempt to turn trauma into an anthemic chant, repeating “Something happened to me last night, and I may never be the same again” over the noise.

“You’re Not Famous Anymore,” on the other hand, dives into existential calamity with venom and vigor. It sounds as if The Clash’s riff on “Should I Stay or Should I Go” has been left out in the sun to ferment — it’s performed a little too fast, and the tone is soured by way of a slight dissonance. Johnson’s opening shout matches the sardonic mood: “You were a child star on methamphetamines/Now no one knows what you are, ’cause you’re not anything.” The lyrics sit somewhere between sympathy and disdain, as the stop-start riff lurches along to a sudden ending.

Finally, on “Dance With Me,” the atmosphere brightens slightly. The guitar lead is gorgeous, a twinkling loop soars over a drum beat that is bashed out exclusively on a snare and crash cymbals — it immediately separates itself from the sound of the rest of the record. “Yea we’re on a burning planet/but upon it there is magic,” sings Johnson. He deftly avoids cheesiness. Instead, the ensuing chorus comes along as a welcome respite — for once we are allowed to forget (briefly) that everything has gone to shit: “Come on, and dance with me.”

40oz. to Fresno struggles to provide more moments of this kind of individual brilliance. The songs that follow “Dance With Me” meld into an unremarkable sludge. Monotony sets in. “Did You Ever Know” adapts the strategy of the other songs here — it switches between stripped down vocal passages and grungy noise. But neither element becomes all that interesting before the song abruptly ends. On the closer, “Secret Sisters,” Johnson’s pop punk whine begins to grate, badly. The nasally, high-pitched intonation customarily walks the thin line between appealing and annoying. Here he stumbles off his vocal feet.

There’s a (perhaps intentional) monotony that sets in as these tracks blur together. But that doesn’t make 40 oz. to Fresno a dull listen because it hits on such a salient and current anxiety. Each thrashing drumbeat, grungy guitar lick, and ennui-infested lyric creates a brief yet vivid tableau of boredom in the face of a burning planet.

Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville, VA. He recently graduated from Stanford University, majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at the Arts Fuse while navigating post-grad life in a pandemic.

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