Album Review: Spanish Love Songs – No Joy

[Pure Noise; 2023]

We would all like to get to a point in our lives where death itself is a welcomed reality rather than a looming, inimitable notion that dictates our daily routines. I can speak for myself; bridging the gap from such a fearful mindset to that of fearlessness feels impossible, and it seems to be that way for Spanish Love Songs frontman Dylan Slocum, too.

Spanish Love Songs have always grappled with the existential dread of one’s mortality — I mean, they are, in some sense, an emo band — but on their new record No Joy, they’ve decided to lean into the whole ‘fake it until you make it’ charade, with Slocum at the forefront recalibrating his mind and heart toward celebration — well, celebratory realism at the very least. 

How does anyone celebrate anything at all these days? Slocum and the band had been asking this question for years leading up to No Joy, and they’re still asking — just with far more nuance and a positive bent. “We might get what we want, but what good will that do?” Slocum poses on “Pendulum.” The other shoe is inevitably going to drop. So, we should give up and give in. 

Not so fast. 

Apathy is an understandable but effortless feeling to harbor, especially in this post-COVID world — it’s a contagion in and of itself — you can’t shake it. Optimism, on the other hand, is uncomfortably hard. But sometimes, intentionally reorienting your mindset a few degrees in the other direction, as self-help-y that sounds, can bring about inward and outward change. It’s not a cure-all, but taking this daily mental leap of faith makes the shit a bit more bearable. All it takes is a shift, one the usually doomful Spanish Love Songs have made on their reverberating, life-affirming statement of a new record.

With endearing, sky-reaching tunes throughout, No Joy is a love letter devoted to life itself, enveloped in anthemic simplicity. It never minces words: “Don’t write yourself out of the equation,” Slocum urges with sincerity on album opener “Lifers” – even if, as he testifies with candor on “Middle of Nine”, “The voices in your head say you’re worthless… [and] won’t let you go.” But like a good love letter, No Joy is also dotted with pain, tragic what-ifs, and whispers of fear of what’s to come.

“I’m Gonna Miss Everything”, which features Slocum’s most moving vocal performance ever, is replete with regret and intrusive thoughts of emptiness, “slouching into oblivion” and “being swallowed alive.” It’s such a bleak moment if you glean by words alone, and yet, when you hear its electro-pop pulse, à la The Killers, rush with infectious velocity and unwavering faith, you wholeheartedly believe the pained release indebted within the imperfect tremble texturing Slocum’s voice as he repeatedly reminds himself if he were to go and be gone; “I’m gonna miss everything.”

Straying rather far from their emo-adjacent pop-punk, Spanish Love Songs are not only morphing their outlook on life but their music, too. No Joy busts through the band’s usually downtrodden cracks with these rumbling synth-pop gems like “I’m Gonna Miss Everything”, tracks that tend to lean heartland and, at times, pure arena rock with schmaltzy hues of contemporary Christian. This sounds like a formula that may turn the band’s devotees away, induced with nausea. But give it a chance — it’s a seamless and natural progression from when the band released squeaky-clean interpretations of their beloved 2020 album Brave Faces Everyone, just last year on Brave Faces Etc. But they’ve buckled down, tightened things up, and now observe sheen and a bit of grit with an impressive balance. 

Some will cry Springsteen-inspired nostalgia — galloping acoustic guitar and a few lyrics about isolation against a desolate American wasteland back this up; others will compare the band’s evolution to a palatable version of Bleachers. I liken No Joy to a bit of both, with nods to LCD Soundsystem (“Mutable”) and even The National (“Exit Bags”). It’s the sound of an entire group of individuals — keyboardist and Slocum’s wife Meredith Van Woert, drummer Ruben Duarte, guitarist Kyle McAulay, and bassist Trevor Dietrich — laying it all out there for one another because they’ve decided, together, to choose life. But what does a band dressing itself in considerable amounts of glistening sonic bombast have to do with not being afraid of death? This brighter sonic shift offers a window for a bit of light to shine through — a reason to dance in it and celebrate what life, however slight or fleeting it may be for some of us, because, as Slocum reminds us, “This life ain’t for choosing / There is no second draft” (“Middle of Nine”).

The phrase that follows immediately, “There’s no happiness coming,” while giving weight to the record’s title, appears to contradict the coursing optimism that in No Joy. It’s a seeming declaration threatening to derail the record’s power. But in actuality, it bolsters it by identifying a significant flaw and impossibility within the very dilemma I presented at the start of this review. We shouldn’t, nor can we, strive for fearlessness in the face of our mortality. We must live, flagrantly, alongside it and engage the natural, inescapable pain it brings. “We have to stay alive out of spite,” Slocum implores on “Marvel”, because “Some days there’s just so much to marvel at / And other days you’re at the bottom of a pit… But we’ll be fine.”

In a chaotic and unpredictable world where our shared longing for a sense of permanence goes largely unnoticed, No Joy is an album reminding us, ‘yeah, it probably will go unnoticed.’ But within this frankness is an exhale of peace and hope, the kind that inspires you to dance or blast synth-tinged heartland rock from your car speakers as you bang your hands on the steering wheel in enthusiasm, realizing, ‘I must live,’ even if out of spite.