Joyce Manor And California’s Pop-Punk Legacy

Molly Lambert on how pop punk never really dies in California

Pop punk never really dies in California, it just reinvents itself. In Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, a wave of pop-punk bands emerged from the wreckage of the ’80s hardcore scene, emphasizing melody and harmony as well as thrust in a vibrant DIY label scene. Pop punk shifted the focus from punk’s overt politics to the interior realm, exploring interpersonal conflicts, romance, and self-loathing, and paving the way for emo. Joyce Manor are a foursome from Torrance, California, who make unpretentious, emo-influenced pop punk that wraps the inherent wistfulness of the genre in a blanket of nostalgia for its ’90s peak.

Their fourth studio album, Cody, released last week, is a brisk 24-minute tour de force of feelings soundtracked with power chords. Joyce Manor embrace the mantle of South Bay punk forebears like Pennywise (Hermosa Beach), The Minutemen (technically from San Pedro), and, most of all, The Descendents (Manhattan Beach) — bands who brought humor and a sentimental sensibility into the sometimes overly serious scene built largely by Black Flag. Joyce Manor are known for their muscular, riff-built power-pop-punk and their controversial anti–stage diving stance. Cody was released through Epitaph Records, the label owned by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz. In the ’90s, Epitaph put out big records by NOFX, Bad Religion, Rancid, and The Offspring, and helped take pop punk from a popular California subgenre to a national, mainstream one.

Torrance is a prototypical L.A. beach ’burb in the city’s South Bay area, simultaneously suburban, industrial, and coastal. It boomed after World War II with aerospace manufacturing and the postwar explosion of suburban growth. It contains the Del Amo Fashion Center — the mall famously seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a love letter to the South Bay areas where aspiring filmmaker Tarantino lived and worked at a video store. An oil refinery looms on a main road near the water, its brutalist, gray industrial towers belching smoke. This week, a power outage incited a “flare-off” event that saw the oil refinery in flames.

You might think Joyce Manor’s Cody was exhumed fully formed from a time capsule buried in 1996 were it not for the early-on reference to Kanye: “What do you think about Kanye West?” they sing in an echo of Le Tigre’s feminist anthem “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes.” The answer? “Yeah, I think he’s better than John Steinbeck / I think he’s better than Phil Hartman” in a tone that can be read as either snotty or completely honest, depending on your opinion. “Fake I.D.” ends with a heartbreaking and very Californian sentiment: “Don’t be shy ’cause my friend Brandon died / And I feel sad / I miss him, he was rad.” Cody is about heartbreak, disillusionment, brief moments of euphoria, and soaring harmonies. Those harmonies recall another band from an area near the L.A. airport — The Beach Boys, from Hawthorne, who also specialized in exploring the melancholic undercurrent of idyllic beachside life.

The songs are so brief that you wish they’d go on longer — every song just leaves you wanting more (punk’s most underappreciated gift is brevity). “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?” is a lo-fi acoustic songlet that lasts under a minute and a half, and demonstrates why Joyce Manor enlisted producer Rob Schnapf, who is best known for his work with Elliott Smith. “Angel in the Snow” is not a cover of the Smith song of the same name, but a spiritual descendant of Smith’s crushed-out isolation. Cody is a coming-of-age album that eschews pop punk’s sometime puerility but zooms in on its emotional aches. Listening to Cody, I thought about Jawbreaker, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, and The Get Up Kids, bands made up of that mainstream ’90s punk demographic: straight, white, suburban boys who nonetheless feel alienated from society, their origins, and themselves. Joyce Manor came up with their band name while drunk at Disneyland, which is the most pop-punk scenario imaginable: childhood idealism crashing head-on into the Frontierland of adulthood.

But most of all, while listening to Cody I thought about the first two Weezer albums, which put overwhelming feelings like heartache and longing into a compactor that rendered them into imperfectly filled Sonic cups, with humanity and vulnerability spilling out over their tops like overfilled keg beer at a backyard rager. Maybe pop punk is having a moment — in their Rolling Stone profile, The Chainsmokers elaborated on their lo-fi EDM hit “Closer” and its reference to Blink-182 by saying they were trying to make a Dashboard Confessional song.

If Dashboard Confessional represented emo’s baroque peak — when the music becomes as melodramatic as the feelings that inspired it — Joyce Manor are a return to the simpler, three-chord-inspired pop-punk acts of the mid- to late-’90s. “I get so tongue-tied / I feel so old today” they sing on “Eighteen,” with all the world-weariness of a young person on the cusp of adulthood, realizing how long, tedious, and often disappointing life is really going to be.

Joyce Manor specialize in conversational lyrics that traffic in the kind of extreme specificity that becomes universally relatable: “Sonia’s going to the parking lot / Probably gonna smoke some weed,” they sing on “Last You Heard of Me” before clarifying that they would join her, but weed makes them fall asleep. “Make Me Dumb” contains the prototypical pop-punk lyric, “on the summer sidewalk, in the summer sun,” and “Over Before It Began” has a Blink-182-style chiming guitar part. With its sad, contemplative lyrics sung over beautiful melodies, Cody is the end-of-summer heartbreak that leaves a gloomy, overcast, cloudy marine layer over your heart as the temperatures start to dip. Equal parts Milo Goes to College and Pet Sounds, Cody is the ocean view with an oil fire cresting on the shore.