Review Summary: Old times, fading away...
It seems that Joyce Manor are inching ever closer towards mellow power pop/acoustic pop, one record at a time. Never Hungover Again represented a more shiny, poppy turn that still featured nearly all the shoutyness of their self titled record, but with cleaner guitars, and a far greater focus on lead guitar interplay. That record still contained songs like Catalina Fight Song, which ranks as one of the most "punk" songs the group has ever done. With Cody, the band pushed things a little further, with a *gasp* acoustic track and an even greater number of midtempo power pop jams like Last You Heard of Me and Over Before It Began. The record had some incredible tunes, but really felt like a bit of a compromise between the old and new, especially with the inclusion of standout Reversing Machine that channeled all the old Joyce Manor it could possibly muster. And with Million Dollars to Kill Me, we're pretty much left with the greatest creative compromise the band have ever come up with.
When it comes to creative compromise and Joyce Manor, an obvious example is Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. Their sophomore record was all over the place, but because of its constant extremity it proved extremely entertaining. The record bounced between blistering punk, noise, jangle pop, and everything in between. While Million Dollars to Kill Me certainly represents nearly every aspect of Joyce Manor's sound, the extremes aren't quite as pronounced. Fighting Kangaroo starts off the record with a great progression and a healthy burst of energy, and the third track Big Lie actually seems to channel the new Joyce Manor with the old to create something that never could have been found on anything they've done previously. Silly Games is cutesy and melodramatic if slightly repetitive, Up the Punx brings the balance between roughness and melody that made Reversing Machine and Make Me Dumb so enjoyable, and Wildflowers is yet another brilliant channeling of The Smiths to close out the record. My issues with these songs are fairly petty compared to the ones in between them.
Both of the songs released as singles for the album, Think I'm Still in Love With You and Million Dollars to Kill Me, strike a completely middle of the road and inoffensive Weezering that demonstrates almost none of the uniqueness of Joyce Manor's songwriting. Think I'm Still in Love likely succeeds on pathos alone, but the song still lacks much of the character that made Fake ID and Eighteen such charming songs. This record also upped the number of acoustic tracks to two, and neither particularly help the flow of the tracklist nor offer the emotional weight of the band's punkier songs. And while it's probably not the best political move to insult a song about online communities on an online community, Friends We Met Online is too outwardly cringeworthy ("sick to my cyber soul"？) to prove particularly enjoyable.
If there are two characteristics that elevate a great Joyce Manor song, it's baffling but potent lyrics combined with brilliant guitar interplay. It's the fairy dust that makes prior tracks like The Jerk and Violent Inside so endlessly replayable, and sadly, both aspects are downplayed on Million Dollars to Kill Me. Impressively, the record is still mostly enjoyable despite all of these shortcomings, which demonstrates the band's commitment to great songwriting. Unfortunately, it seems that focus couldn't be applied to a vision that didn't end up feeling like a massive compromise, instead of a singular movement forward that could have meant another superb record for Joyce's catalog.