Just 20 minutes long, the quick slice of time that is Joyce Manor’s second LP swings dramatically between belly laughs and gut punches. Mostly, though, it dishes out the latter. Never Hungover Again represents a tightening of the California punk band’s sound and also a new stroke of bravery. The album, produced by Joe Reinhardt, breaches a higher fidelity than either their self-titled debut from 2011 or 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. The lyrics, which are personal to the brink of emo, ring clearly on Barry Johnson’s voice. Their third time around, Joyce Manor sound like they’re taking themselves more seriously.
Never Hungover Again will probably be the first album many people hear from this band, and in some ways it does feel like a proper debut after two records of playful, hesitant sketches. The sound is crisp and Johnson sings boldly. But it wears so many well-trod markers of pop punk that it struggles to rise from the backwash of young bands blasting power chords from scuffed-up Strats in ongoing homage to Stiff Little Fingers and the Queers.
The song that works best here is also the one that covers the least ground — a small patch of skin, actually. “Heart Tattoo” cracks the old heart-on-sleeve metaphor against a perfectly buoyant guitar progression, but it skirts cliche by staying as literal as possible. On the surface, Johnson is pretty much just singing about getting a tattoo in the shape of a heart. Beneath the skin, he hints at layers of inadequacy, insecurity, and fear without forcing them into the song’s sunny bounce. “I know that it looks bad,” bassist Matt Ebert chimes in at the background, “but it’s the only one I have.”
The album’s heavier points tend to slant alternately intriguing and confusing. On “In the Army Now”, Johnson sings, “I want to kiss you through your hockey mask ’cause we’re in the army now,” an image that’s twistedly resonant, if difficult to grasp. Romantic abandonment coincides with military service in the world of Joyce Manor. “I always knew you’d leave me someday/ I always knew you’d join the army,” sings Johnson, and unlike “Heart Tattoo”, it’s unclear if the song is literal or wielding an extravagant, suspended metaphor.
Closer “Heated Swimming Pool” cuts harshest despite its loose, uptempo guitar work. “I wish you would’ve died in high school/ So you could be somebody’s idol,” Johnson seethes. The words are mean and the song is not, but Joyce Manor is the sort of band to wrap their poison up in candy. It just feels like they could have played around with more flavors between sweet and deadly.
Essential Tracks: “Heart Tattoo”