Joyce Manor’s “Heart Tattoo:” How They Contrasted Immaturity and Sophistication to Create a Winner

Joyce Manor is currently riding high on their fantastic new record, Never Hungover Again, released in July on Epitaph Records. The band has always had a knack for strong songwriting, shown clearly on their debut self-titled LP and somewhat less clearly on their quasi-experimental second LP, Of All the Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. That second LP featured nine tracks clocking in at around 13 minutes and included a unique cover of the Buggles classic, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which barely even featured the chorus. Of All the Things… could have been viewed as a “fuck you” to their audience, except for the fact that it is chock-full of emotionally affecting outbursts that somehow succeed despite its unusual approach. I’ve always found “don’t-give-a-fuckitude” of this band to be both admirable and contagious.

With Never Hungover Again, Joyce Manor combines all of its past strengths into its best effort to date. A standout track on the album is “Heart Tattoo.” It’s an exploration of immaturity and emotion that succeeds by taking familiar concepts and twisting them into something new and heartfelt.

The Lyrics

The lyrics to “Heart Tattoo” are, at first blush, almost recklessly immature: “I want a heart tattoo/ I want it to hurt really bad.” However, it’s through this immaturity that vocalist Barry Johnson manages to explore the intensity felt when experiencing immature emotions. Whether it is a first love or another theme of youth (maybe angry rebellion?), it’s the emotions that cause knee-jerk reactions that we feel the most. A poorly-done tattoo of a heart is a strong symbol of such a knee-jerk reaction to an intense emotional situation. For an aging punk (with possibly a regrettable tattoo that memorializes a certain time and place other than right now), this should be even more relatable.

The theme continues through the rest of the lyrics with great lines expressing the underlying feeling: “What do you want me to say? It’s never going away, my heart tattoo/ That’s what I want/ That’s what I’ll do/ I’ll get a heart/ a heart tattoo.”  It’s almost purposely simplistic, repeating key words, but highlighting the focus of the song. This culminates in the self-aware and melancholy finale: “I know that it looks bad, but it’s the only one have.”

Of course, like many Joyce Manor songs, there is a line that is totally out of left field: “I want to say ‘what’s up dad.’ Who knows how you feel about that?” Maybe this is a nod to familial rebellion, maybe it’s an inside joke, but then maybe it means nothing. Whatever it means, I think with the rest of the lyrics being so straight-forward, the touch of ambiguity helps the song overall.

The Music

Whether on purpose or not, the opening and main chord progression of the song is built on what is perhaps the most used chord progression in pop-punk: the I–V–vi–IV progression. This progression is the root of many of the biggest modern punk bands’ biggest songs. That includes Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” Blink-182’s “Dammit,” New Found Glory’s “Hit or Miss,” and even other band’s songs such as Bush’s “Glycerine” (which is a terrible, terrible song – this is not up for debate), and Weezer fan-favorite “My Name is Jonas.” To support an immature pop-punk emotion, this is the perfect chord progression to use.

However, Joyce Manor doesn’t just sit on this progression, but offers a more through-written approach to it, pausing and varying the progression as they make their way through the song.

There are two things to note. First, the song is the key of B major, so the I chord is B, V is F#, vi is G#, and IV is E. Second, while the whole song is built on only these four chords, the order changes often and the guitar players often utilizes unique voicings and lead parts over top. While the roots are simple, there is a good deal more going on than just the main chords.

The first verse:

B               F#           G#    E

I want a heart tattoo

B                F#                     G#

I want it to hurt really bad

B                       F#      G#                  E

That’s how I’ll know, I’ll know it’s real

B  F#      E

A real tattoo

The first line follows I-V-vi-IV, but the second line stays on the G# (the vi) and the fourth line skips the G#(vi) and goes straight for the E(IV). This variation keeps this very familiar chord progression from going stale.

After the verse postlude (“That’s what I want/ that’s what I’ll do…”) which alternates between the F# and E chord, we get an instrumental section with a new chord progression that is built on the same chords: G# – F# – B – E or vi-V-I-IV. However, in a very unusual move, the second verse begins on this same progression, meaning the first verse and second verse – which are highly identifiable as verse 1 and verse 2 – are built on different chord progressions:

G#           F#           B   E

I want a heart tattoo

G#            F#           B

I’ll never get it removed

G#                        F#      B                       E

That’s how I’ll know, I’ll know it’s real

G#  F#    E

A real tattoo

While this is a different iteration of the first chord progression, the difference can be simplified when you consider that it’s the same chord progression, with just the B and G# chords flipped. These chords are nearly identical (except for the obvious root note difference) from a harmonic perspective, so this alternate version works to give a different feel, but works smoothly with the same melody.

After the second verse, we hear the verse postlude again. This section could be described as a chorus as it sits in the spot where a chorus would be. However, to my ear, this is not a chorus, because it just doesn’t sound like a chorus. The song then slips into the catchy closing refrain “I know that it looks bad, but it’s the only one I have” over the return of the basic I-V-vi-VI chord progression. This part sounds so much like Blink-182 that I actually wonder if it was done on purpose. It definitely fits the lyrical theme to make such homage.

A first glance, this song might seem oddly immature, but it’s precisely that nod to immaturity that is the point of the song. That might be the genius of Joyce Manor – their songs display a unique mixture of bad decisions, intense emotions, and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that acts as a reaction to life moving from adolescence to adulthood. As this song shows, they are able to reflect this in the lyrics, music, and their overall songwriting.

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