While listening through the album, you can’t help but imagine slow dancing in a school gym. This youthful callback is most apparent when “Silly Games” starts with the piano and xylophone instrumentation and the whimsical melodic version of frontman Barry Johnson’s voice. In “Gone Tomorrow” and “Wildflowers,” the melody also takes center stage with cascading guitars and soft humming vocals, giving listeners something unexpected yet strangely serene. “Fighting Kangaroo” left me lost with Barry Johnson’s familiar, soulful, almost-yelling singing style with the puzzling addition of “shoo-bop” and “da da da” backing vocals. Whether or not the goal of the “shoo-bops” was to prepare us for the pop-oriented songs in the album, the song is a mess (not referring to “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I”). There may be a point to the set-up, i.e. cheesy love and misery aligned, but the album could have certainly gone without it.
The production is undoubtedly better, but the execution is lacking. Yes, all artists should be given space to experiment with their sound; however, their commitment to pop music experimentation sacrifices the cohesiveness of the album. This is demonstrated when the band continues to return to songs like “Up The Punx” and “Friends We Met Online” that sound like they belong on Never Hungover Again. Joyce Manor depends almost entirely on lyrical themes to hold the album together as a whole piece of work. The sound of the album overall, however, is undeniably good, and thankfully, I could still probably pick most of the songs out as being by Joyce Manor in a line-up.
“While listening through the album, you can’t help but imagine slow dancing in a school gym. “
Other music reviewing sites have described Million Dollars to Kill Me as a maturity checkpoint, but I can’t say I entirely agree. For starters, the first three tracks are completely devoid of any emotional maturity. “Fighting Kangaroo” demonstrates a lack of control over the frontman’s aggressive behavior, even though he comes to terms with his significant other being “the one that [he pretends] was enough.” “Think I’m Still In Love With You” follows with the counter-intuitive urge to stay attached to a toxic relationship because there’s a certain degree of enjoyment that comes along with the misery (“Even though it isn’t right/I still gotta put up a fight/ You could leave me black and blue/ I think I’m still in love with you”). Neither track is exactly a step forward for the band, and come off as more unhinged than reflective.
Progressing through the tape, they seem to slowly regain a grip on their emotional strife and eliminate their toxic view on their woman counterparts. Toward the end of “Big Lie,” the band transitions from “girls can be kinda controlling/ I wanna be controlled,” to “I never noticed the way she had it out for me/ I should suppose it’s like that for everyone/ so understated, we’re never friendly anyhow.” It reflects the sincere lack of power that has troubled Barry’s past relationships and extends a hand of understanding to those in similar situations. Though the lyrics irk many female listeners, there’s a sense of growth, and “Big Lie” is arguably the best and most well-crafted song on the album. It has a strong beat, a climax, and just the right amount of singing and yelling, resulting in a soft and melodic ending, as it drifts off with the lyrics “Until we’re washed away, child.”
As A Million Dollars to Kill Me goes on, there is a sense of Joyce Manor’s self-realization and self-awareness coming to a peak. They come to terms with the past and the end of an unhealthy relationship, and begin to shift to bigger issues outside of themselves. Their focus on disillusionment with society supersedes their more common themes of emotional volatility and desperation. It marks a major departure from the ideas of intense hope and romanticizing of failing relationships that are prevalent in songs like “Heart Tattoo” and “Falling in Love Again” from previous albums. The change in themes can be appreciated in “I’m Not The One” as the band’s concern turns to societal matters. Their commentary on wealthy people not necessarily being good people is relevant, but at the same time Joyce Manor can’t help but notice other bands, including themselves, struggling to stay true to their values while still making an actual living. This makes the self-criticism that they’re only “Booking the shows where they sell the most clothes,” even more honorable.
Not only does Joyce Manor go in and out of themes of relationships in A Million Dollars to Kill Me, it has a fairly steady theme of attaching value to people. In the title song “A Million Dollars To Kill Me,” Barry Johnson shares how all of his value as a person comes from his relationship. He explains, “She’s the only one who could take you to a pawn shop and sell you for twice what you’re worth,” and when she no longer feels that way, he’s just “An asshole from a bar.” Similarly in “Gone Tomorrow,” Barry narrates how everyone just wants to know they have value in the world, with “Gone tomorrow, but here today/ Not much skill for not much pay”. Even in “Friends We Met Online”, Joyce Manor can see and express the value they found in their online friends, something that many people fail to acknowledge.
“Joyce Manor may have jumped the gun with their pop influences, but their desire to grow both as musicians and even more so as people make an otherwise mediocre release into something essential for long time fans.“
As the band grows older, and their fans grow with them, they continue to stay relatable, and display their increased self-awareness. Though some of the songs may feel a bit emotionally stunted, a common problem causing a lot of emo bands to lose their audiences, they recover by recognizing their own personal faults. This allows their fan-base emerging into adulthood to remain attached and interested. Joyce Manor may have jumped the gun with their pop influences, but their desire to grow both as musicians and even more so as people make an otherwise mediocre release into something essential for long time fans.