Joji – SMITHEREENS

Now on his third album since reinventing himself with a new persona, the king of lo-fi balladry has returned with his briefest project yet. The follow-up to 2020’s solid Nectar, which saw Joji fleshing out his sparse sounds and astute songwriting instincts with production that was slightly more involved and less disjointed, things have swung back in the other direction with a 9-track album that doesn’t even hit the 25-minute mark. Of course, it’s highlighted by Joji’s first ever top 10 hit, a striking emotional powerhouse that stands up as one of the year’s best tracks – it just feels like Joji forgot that he had to attach his brilliant idea to an actual album and padded out the rest with half-baked filler. Divided into two halves, one featuring “introspective ballads” and the other “lo-fi, D.I.Y. sounds,” ironically, past “Glimpse of Us,” we only get a couple glimpses of just how good Joji can be.

For how many times I’ve heard “Glimpse of Us,” it still succeeds at making my heart sink every time I take the time to focus on it. The piano melody is instantly memorable, bringing some La La Land energy to the table, while Joji’s crushed, wavering delivery sells the track like no other singer truly could. This song connected with so many people for a reason – just the word “glimpse” alone is such an evocative lyric, while the rest of the song feels like the most genuine, human track of the year, breaking through the rest of the manufactured stuff. Of course, such an anthem is immediately followed up by “Feeling Like The End,” an upbeat trap-pop song which runs under two minutes in length. Joji has never been a great singer, and it’s paradoxically why he succeeds as much as he does in the lo-fi space. Because his content is usually all about heartbreak and loneliness, hearing someone play the part, sounding like they’re fighting through tears to get the melody across without much instrumental support behind him is what makes it work. Here, Joji uses his weak falsetto on the hook that’s supposed to hit hard and be danceable in the context of this song, and it doesn’t punch as much as it should. The melody is certainly a little catchy, but it mostly just feels like a fragment of an idea – it’s just two choruses and a short verse.

Second single “Die For You” was also well chosen, as it’s the closest this project comes to capturing the same kind of magic as its opening track. It begins very lo-fi, with the same kind of dreamy, Disney-style piano in the back before a bigger drumbeat kicks in, almost finding a happy medium between the two tracks that preceded it. With a very theatrical chorus and some nice harmonies, the way that the drums continue to pick up as the song progresses makes for another one of those oddly appropriate Joji moments – like it’s hitting a kind of anthemic quality for a singer that sounds like he wants absolutely nobody to hear what he’s saying. “Before The Day Is Over” slows down the tempo a little bit as the pianos persist in the background, but this one feels a lot more stilted, not really building up to anything without as much emotion and movement to be had. Joji drops down to his lower register for the chorus, and it’s honestly always been a bit of a creepy, overenunciated one – so it doesn’t help his cause when he keeps saying “let me in.” “Dissolve” is a well-structured track that again feels like it would thrive if someone else were singing it – it coasts on some Post Malone-style quick strummed acoustics, and the more fleshed-out instrumental feels like Joji needs to bring a little more passion to his vocals to match the emotional lyrics, instead of being his desensitized and heartbroken self drowned out by it all.

Looking at what’s labeled Disc 2, there’s only one song on it that isn’t marked with a “demo,” “interlude” or “freestyle.” That track is “NIGHT RIDER,” which might have the most interesting instrumental on the project. It would have been even better if the track was long enough to accommodate it. With some ascending synths that sound like a filtered voice and a hard-hitting trap beat, Joji’s chorus over a slow-burn synth getting progressively louder is another great idea that’s let down by a track length of two minutes – this one had a lot of potential. “BLAHBLAHBLAH DEMO” has the same issues – there’s a few good elements that could have been ironed out with a little more effort. There’s another solid, catchy hook on this one over some raw acoustics, but the beat switch in the middle slows the guitar pattern down and throws off the rhythm as a result.

“YUKON (INTERLUDE)” is the highlight of the second disc, set to a drum n’ bass breakbeat as Joji brings out some hip-hop energy when it comes to the way he laces together syllables and sings about driving recklessly to forget his troubles. His favourite instrument returns in the background, and the piano getting more involved near the track’s end gives it the idea of a completed picture that most of these songs lack. Things fade out with “1AM FREESTYLE,” another very brief and repetitive track that finds Joji singing “I don’t want to be alone.” It’s a very Joji end stamp, but it feels fragmentary once again.

There’s been talk that this project was so rushed in order for Joji to more rapidly fulfill his contract with 88Rising, the label he’s been somewhat publicly disputing with – if that’s the case, at least he deservedly got his most successful song yet out of it. As far as the album experience goes, however, this one doesn’t have as much to offer as his previous projects.

Favourite Tracks: Glimpse of Us, Die For You, YUKON (INTERLUDE), NIGHT RIDER

Least Favourite Track: Before The Day Is Over

Score: 5/10

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