Throughout Joywave’s career, frontperson/bandleader Daniel Armbruster has repeatedly signaled his preoccupation with fame via his lyrics. At the outset of Cleanse, the indietronica outfit’s fourth proper full-length, it doesn’t seem like much has changed in that regard. “And when the call goes out again,” Armbruster sings on the album opener, “Pray for the Reboot”, “I hope they give me the part / Big names are in / We’ll take it back to the start.” The “start” he refers to is, of course, the hopeful sense that we might someday soon return to the rhythm of what life was like prior to covid.
At first, it appears that Armbruster can only think to process an unprecedented global catastrophe as an obstacle to his career ambitions. Thankfully, that proves not to be the case. This time, Armbruster attempts to throw his arms around the world and understand his dread and worry through a collective lens. All too often, artists come off as disingenuous when they drape themselves in the plight of others, but Armbruster achieves the opposite. Here, he finds the heart in Joywave’s music and runs with a newfound thoughtfulness that invigorates Cleanse from start to finish.
For example, in “Buy American”, Armbruster cleverly evokes the carefree abandon of romance as a parallel for our lack of concern about our choices. “Think less,” he sings. “If it hurts more, baby / live, laugh / When it breaks, we’ll get the whole thing replaced.” The song’s central message—that avoidance ultimately poisons us even if it feels good in the moment—lands all the more convincingly because he performs it as if playing the part of a heavy-breathing paramour in a love song. “Buy American” sounds like it was written for a night of dancing in a sweaty club followed by a convertible ride home with the wind blowing through your hair, but the fizzy dance-pop veneer of the music only enhances the persuasiveness of the lyrics.
To be fair, Armbruster and company have long been able to dial-up previous pop eras at the touch of a button. With Cleanse, though, they rise above the mechanical mimicry that’s stifled them in the past. This time, Joywave synthesize a slew of dance-pop touchstones—from classic Tears for Fears to LCD Soundsystem and beyond—into a fresh sound that brims with life. Meanwhile, highly organic-sounding beats from drummer Paul Brenner crackle within an otherwise digitized rush of sounds, infusing the music with some space to breathe. And strangely enough, by broadening his perspective, Armbruster speaks to individual experience with more acuity than ever.
The shift in focus pays huge creative dividends. Though Joywave have cracked the edges of mass awareness via late-night talk show appearances, Coachella, and even guest spots on ESPN and NHL podcasts, we’re now in an era where celebrity is more diffuse than it once was. It’s hard to fault Armbruster for being so antsy to satisfy a nagging urge to get somewhere—the band hail from a place that suffers from a pervasive sense that culture is always generated elsewhere. But well before 2020, we already had ample reason to acknowledge that fame, success, and recognition aren’t synonymous, but more like overlapping circles on a Venn diagram.
Today, of course, the context for such concerns has changed drastically, and Joywave have been wise to adjust. Where Armbruster once spent so much of his energy on defining his place in pop culture, a song like “Every Window Is a Mirror” hits the bulls-eye on what it must have felt like for everyone who’s ever tried to find their footing amidst a backdrop of chaos. Armbruster taps into the feeling that what happens outside our window often looks too daunting to come to terms with. The song doesn’t explicitly reference any of the upheavals of the last two years, but it doesn’t have to in order to speak volumes about the existential uncertainty of the moment.
Ironically, Armbruster has found his recipe for mass appeal by simply focusing on something other than the desire for mass appeal. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s learned to craft songs that are big and sturdy enough to support sentiments that carry to the back row. Cleanse comes so chock-loaded with anthems that just about any track could work as a single. When “Cyn City 2000” reaches its pre-chorus, for instance, with Armbruster repeating the words “I don’t want to be cynical” over and over, one can’t help but picture an entire arena singing along.
The difference now, though, is that Joywave have managed to foster a communal spirit that wasn’t there before. After all the tension people have been subjected to, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see concertgoers burst into tears as Armbruster reassures us that “there’s nowhere better to be”. Only time will tell whether that turns out to be accurate, but Cleanse sure does make it feel good to believe it. Far too many musicians have responded to the limited mobility of the past two years with the same tunnel vision they had beforehand. Joywave, alas, have clearly been changed by what we’ve all lived through. They’ve also emerged with their most moving work yet.
Full disclosure: Though the author and Daniel Armbruster share a handful of mutual friends, he’s only ever met Armbruster twice and wouldn’t recognize the other members of Joywave if they walked past him in the street.