by Chad Jewett
Joy, Departed, the second and finest LP from Connecticut emo quartet Sorority Noise is largely built from a single affecting strategy: start with a whisper, end with a shout. It’s a system with a storied history – after all, any plot device that powers “Hey Jude”, “Lithium”, “Try A Little Tenderness” and “Poison Oak” is doing something right – and, for Sorority Noise, all of those early murmurs and sudden bursts glean added benefit from the way the form matches sentiment. Joy, Departed is a thoughtful album with a brave willingness to plumb dark thoughts, changing moods, and bitter honesty. Sometimes the back halves of these songs – once they pop open like fireworks – arrive as catharsis; sometimes they feel like things growing even more dire. The LP is at once lovely and haunting, still enamored with the big-wave power-pop of last year’s Forgettable, but using all of those glam solos and broad-stroke power chords for something unexpectedly understated. It’s a record that finds triumph in existentialism and energy in nuance.
The album’s melodies, and the frequently moving words with which Cam Boucher gives them shape, are breezily tuneful and effortless in a way that you suspect Sorority Noise, who have the genre’s best ears for pop history, always aspired to. Album highlight “Corrigan” begins with a McCartney-esque lilting sing-song, making something fluid and graceful out of a mouthful like “All I wanna be is the one you sometimes miss.” Later, when the song inevitably launches into its gale of melodic punk the band nevertheless makes room for that same prettiness, rather than re-stamp it into something blunt, as would sometimes be the case on the less sculpted Forgettable. Later, both “Nosley” and “Using” boast the kind of melodies that are almost a thousand songs on the tip of your tongue, but aren’t quite any of them, which is as good a sign as any of an ideal working pop song. That both – especially “Using” – use that kind of sweetness for introspective narratives about depression, drug abuse, and melancholy underlines what works best about Joy, Departed: its refusal to be glib about its own effortless pleasures. “Mononokay” has all the power chords and Guitar Pop 101 blocking of “The Blue Album”, but diffuses its own clean lines with missives like “I’m not superhuman / Well, I’m barely alive.”
Joy, Departed also marks a new apex for Sorority Noise as a studio entity. The doubled-guitars that surge around the chorus of “Using” are shaped just so, less walls of sound than moving currents, light and propulsive rather than simply absolute. Album-opener “Blissth” is delicate and ornate, every little sound whispering in its early moments, a careful blanket of strings filling its later stretches. It’s a bedroom-pop classicism that is used to even lovelier effect on “Fuschia”, a song that has all the baroque grace of Sufjan Stevens’ harrowing Carrie & Lowell. Interestingly, it is only lead single “Art School Wannabe” that feels vaguely out of cycle with the rest of the album’s restrained choices and carefully-apportioned sonic booms. And yet, “Art School Wannabe” ends up being where we most see the stylists that Sorority Noise have become. In the past, the song would have committed to its bouncing staccato jabs with single-minded gusto. Now, you can hear billowing studio-pop grace notes, tricky atonal electric piano accents, and an admirable desire on the part of Sorority Noise to make big, stomping gestures with the lightest of touches.