Joywave goes on an irony 'Cleanse' with new, anthemic pop album 

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Irony is a difficult sword to wield, but Joywave — the hometown hero of indie rock — has been swinging it with a vengeance since its debut full-length album “How Do You Feel Now?” was released by Hollywood Records in 2015.

Joywave songs are glossy, well-crafted, and loaded with tasty ear candy. The music is undeniably catchy, but it’s also unsettling, especially if you’re paying attention to the lyrics, which often center on the struggle for connection and fulfillment in a disposable culture fraught with distractions and superficiality.

On Joywave’s new album “Cleanse” — which releases digitally on Feb. 11 and on vinyl Feb. 25 via Cultco/Hollywood Records and is available for pre-order — the band settles more deeply into anthemic pop and takes the edge off its forked tongue, even while it’s still firmly planted in its collective cheek.

The album’s fourth track, “Cyn City 2000,” with its space-synth hooks, is a clear indicator. As frontman Daniel Armbruster flatly states, “I don’t want to be cynical.” If that’s the case, he’s going against his own track record.

Armbruster’s songwriting has always been an acknowledgement that pop music can dull the senses and lull listeners into a false sense of security and apathy. But Joywave’s music can also be effective at doing just that.

And that irony seems fitting for a band that perpetually straddles the line between critiquing culture and being complicit in its shortcomings. Armbruster seems completely aware of this contradiction, however. On the title track from the 2017 album “Content,” he makes no distinction between insight and apathy, and he comes to a scary self-realization:

I’m searching for the difference between what content and content can bring/ Maybe they’re no different ’cause they look the same/ Maybe I’m just an algorithm with a given name.

Joywave is clearly skilled at satirical hipster schtick, but the music can be bloodless at times. How much of what the band presents is genuine, and how much is a put-on? Armbruster sounded sincere on the rock ballad “Like a Kennedy,” from the band’s 2020 record “Possession”:

Are they gonna bomb us all? I don’t know/ Do you think they’ll build a wall? I don’t know/ Do you think they’ll take it all? I don’t know/ I just want to be fat and old — and happy.

That sentiment seems to have lingered with Armbruster, guitarist Joseph Morinelli, and drummer Paul Brenner as they made “Cleanse,” and shed some of their deadpanned, dark humor in favor of a resilient optimism.

This shift in attitude shows up in the music, too. “Cleanse” embraces danceable pop drenched in electronic keyboards and upbeat guitar rhythms. The band’s indebtedness to ’80s soft rock is obvious on songs such as “Pray for the Reboot” and “Buy American,” which set the tone for the rest of the album.

In tender moments, Armbruster’s singing possesses a delicate beauty akin to that of Tom Chaplin’s vocals for Britpop-piano rockers Keane. But Joywave’s deceptively skilled singer also has fleeting moments of pop bombast, bringing to mind the ecstatic, Queen-inspired singer-songwriter Mika. At times, even Joywave’s guitar riffs seem like twice-removed cousins of Brian May’s solos.

But if there’s one band in whose footsteps Armbruster and company seems to be following, however inadvertent it may be, it’s The Killers.

Joywave’s penchant for arena rock is nothing new, but the band has streamlined its sound with leaner arrangements and less angular guitar licks, especially on such tunes as “Every Window Is a Mirror” and “The Inversion.” The resulting music smoothes out Joywave’s purposefully jagged edges from previous albums, opting for straight-ahead drum rhythms and sing-along choruses begging to be shouted by large crowds.

With “Cleanse,” Joywave has absolved itself of its biggest sin: self-indulgent cleverness. In the past, Armbruster’s addiction to sardonic wit came at the expense of emotional honesty. He and the band might finally be kicking the habit.

This article has been updated to correct the year Joywave’s debut full-length was released.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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