Joyce Manor’s 90-second songs used to come with zero ornamentation.
Notably absent were repetitious choruses, solos, any trim-able chaff. What was left over were gigantic, melodic hooks piled on top of each other and oddly angled. Listening, you could feel every decision made during the process of each song’s construction.
Things have changed on Joyce’s fourth album, last week's Cody, on which frontman Barry Johnson says the California band went for “something a little more beautiful sounding.” There are only two songs under two minutes, and the album as a whole actually exceeds 20. Nate Reuss of fun. provides backing vocals. They have a new drummer.
Cody’s striking cover art, a photo of a dog on a weedy green lawn chewing a mannequin’s severed head, was shot by Minneapolis-based photographer Adam DeGross, a friend of Johnson’s. The image is eerie. It suggests a surreal suburban dread, or a feral animal, momentarily sated. DeGross sent the photo on spec, saying he thought it had a “Joyce Manor vibe,” Johnson said.
We recently talked with Johnson by phone to learn more about Cody, which is earning critical praise from the New York Times, Pitchfork, and other outlets. He described the LP as Joyce Manor's most studiously crafted album yet, one born from attempts to be less ambitious in the writing stage.
“I think you yield better results sometimes when you’re not trying to write the best song of all time,” he said ahead of his band's show Friday at the Garage with the Hotelier and Crying. "You’re just writing this song. It might be good, it might be alright, it might be very very good, and sometimes you don’t really realize until you step away from it.”
Cody was produced by Rob Schnapf, whose past credits include Beck’s Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, XO, Figure 8, and From a Basement on the Hill. The influence of Smith’s overcast folk-pop can be heard in the gorgeous, stereo-panned acoustic guitars on “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?” and the twinkling bridge of “Stairs." "Angel in the Snow," perhaps coincidentally, even shares a title with a song of Smith’s
Johnson looked to Schnapf to help flesh out his ideas. He characterized Schnapf as the first pure producer the band has gone into the studio with, someone who wouldn’t simply capture Joyce’s live sound.
“On the new album I did a lot less editing,” Johnson said. “When I had a good idea, I tried to keep it in its raw form, instead of overwork it ... I made an effort not to do that as much, and not to strangle the life out of the songs.”
He characterized his writing before Cody as “treating every song I write like it’s the last good song I’m ever going to write, trying to force it to be the best song of all time.”
“Last You Heard of Me,” the album's prerelease single, exemplifies Johnson’s altered approach to songwriting and Schnapf’s role in the album’s sessions.
“That song I wrote very quickly,” Johnson said. "And it was easy, and I didn’t really work on it that much. I liked it. I didn’t think it was the best song in the world.”
Once the band took the song to Rob, it took a leap forward.
“He kind of added little things, like chord changes in kind of weird, unconventional spots,” Johnson said of the finished track. “It might be my favorite Joyce Manor song because it should fucking suck. Like, nothing fucking happens in that song, it’s the same thing over and over again, it’s the same melody, lyrically the story it tells is fucking boring and it goes nowhere. But somehow it just works.”
The song sees Joyce Manor pulling off a conventional, three minute pop-punk song without losing their identity. Instead of keeping things interesting by cramming ideas into a tiny space, "Last You Heard of Me" keeps its momentum through shifting instrumental textures: the guitars get louder and gain gentle distortion, and a tambourine enters at an odd point in its back half. But everything ultimately underpins Johnson’s vocal melody, which runs throughout.
“It doesn’t sound like it wants to be the best song in the world,” Johnson said. "It just kind of is what it is, and it has a little maturity to it, or something. It’s something I haven’t done before. I’m really proud of it, I don’t know how it came out any good at all because it should fucking suck.”
With: The Hotelier, Crying
When: 7 p.m. Fri., Oct. 14
Where: The Garage
Tickets: $16-$18; more info here