“What do you think about Kanye West? / I think that he’s great, I think that he’s the best / I think he’s better than John Steinbeck / Yeah, I think he’s better than Phil Hartman.”
That lyric comes from Cody’s infectious first single, “Fake I.D.”, which reveals Barry Johnson, Joyce Manor’s leader singer, guitarist, and lyricist, as a funny and perceptive writer of youth culture in the tradition of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig or the 1975’s Matthew Healy. Despite punk featuring some of the underground music’s most utilitarian voices throughout its history, it’s largely been sequestered from the larger indie and pop music conversation to the early ’00s peak and flameout that’s left a bitter taste on many critical tongues. It’s telling that “Fake I.D.’s” lyrics have led much of the conversation regarding Cody in the Twitter-verse. But to focus solely on a timely reference to Mr. West is to miss Johnson’s greater insight into millennial malaise that the other nine songs contain.
Across three previous albums, Joyce Manor have crafted bittersweet nuggets that hit right in the matrix where Weezer, Jawbreaker, and Guided by Voices meet. Never Hungover Again, Joyce Manor’s classic third album, felt like a natural peak for them, a culmination of all the things that made them great in the first place — brevity, melody, energy — and executed them perfectly in twenty minutes of brilliance.
Joyce Manor’s fourth album, Cody is their most refined effort yet, featuring elegant production, more melodically rich vocals, and increasingly varied songwriting. While Cody presents the change from adolescence to adulthood as an uncertain and exhausting venture, the band’s continued maturation seems natural and fitting.
At first, it seems that Cody could be a retread as “Fake I.D.”, the album’s opening song, channels Never Hungover’s sound, but adds new wrinkles with its observational and sardonic lyrics. This vibe is continued through the next two excellent tracks, “Eighteen” and “Angel in the Snow”, but takes a sharp turn with “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?”, an acoustic interlude, with the multi-tracked Johnson singing about addiction. It’s a beautiful, intimate, and intuitive piece of music that signals Johnson’s evolving sensibility and melodic gifts. It’s certainly the album’s biggest departure and proves to be an important marker of what’s to come. The next song, “Last You Heard of Me”, charts quotidian details of going to a bar, heading outside to smoke a cigarette, and then, finally, meeting eyes with an ex-lover. The song doesn’t have a chorus and the lyrics follow this linear train of thought as the music shifts behind the vocals. First, Johnson sings accompanied only by a riff that brings to mind Green Day’s “When I Come Around”, then the band comes in, backing him with a clean percussive pulse before they go crashing into the song’s climax, only to be followed by Johnson’s wordless, choral-style vocals as the song ends. While Johnson’s lyrics have previously benefited from poetic observation and juxtaposition that implied more than they actually said, “Last You Heard of Me” is his most mature, focused, and clear statement. Not only is it Cody’s highlight, it’s probably the best song Joyce Manor has ever written.
The album’s second half features a similar level of quality as the first, but is perhaps not as revelatory. “Make Me Dumb” balances stoner-rock riffs with a sweet, dreamy chorus that appropriately captures the lyrical sentiment. “Over Before It Began” and “Reversing Machine” offer up solid, if uninspired expressions of the Joyce Manor sound. “Stairs”, the longest track on the album at four minutes, has lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on Saves The Day’s classic Stay What You Are. It’s the deepest dive into arrested development that Joyce Manor have committed to tape, with Johnson talking about living with his parents at age 26 and being unable to wash dishes or do laundry because of privileged ignorance. The pain in the song is bifold: it’s tough to hear someone as observant and evolved as Johnson singing about such a tired protagonist, but the detail and emotion he conjures makes up for, and ultimately transcends, the subject matter. The final song, “This Song Is a Mess but so Am I” rounds the endeavor with tongue-in-cheek cuteness; you could almost image it closing out a Juno-type coming-of-age film.
Never Hungover Again is their peak thus far, but Cody, points to future avenues that Joyce Manor can go down as it charts Barry Johnson’s continued development as a lyricist and songwriter.