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On Smithereens, Joji struggles to remedy heartbreak

"Smithereens"

Release date: 04 November 2022
5/10
Joji smithereens art
03 November 2022, 00:00 Written by Alex Nguyen
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The allure of Joji’s music exists in his inclination to share his innermost thoughts.

Five years ago, George Kusunoki Miller shed his memelord personality, Filthy Frank, to pursue a music career under the name Joji. His lo-fi, vibey aesthetic fit within the current age of trap-flavored R&B, and with an already established following, he quickly ascended into the mainstream. On his 2020 record, Nectar, Miller incorporated cinematic strings, grander production, and brief genre departures into his musical palette. The project attempted to reach further than his 2018 debut, Ballads 1, and largely succeeded with breakthrough singles like “Run” and “Sanctuary”, which integrated elements of psychedelic rock and electropop respectively. However, Nectar suffered from overindulgence, forcing too many filler songs in between the album’s singles. The record showed potential and featured some of Miller’s best hits but failed to function as a cohesive project.

With this album cycle, Miller’s stock has only risen with “Glimpse of Us” going viral on TikTok, leading the single to debut in the top 10 of the US Billboard Hot 100. It’s a simple yet effective piano ballad, featuring some of Miller’s best vocals while telling the story of someone who is unable to forget the feelings they have for their previous partner despite being in a better relationship. The single debuted with striking found footage visuals that depict instances of violent and reckless behaviour as a result of heartbreak. The package as a whole was a devastating combo that generated fervent anticipation for Smithereens.

Yet, looking at the tracklist may tell a different story. At 24 minutes, including a demo, interlude, and freestyle, Smithereens sees Miller change his approach. Perhaps the brevity of this release would help combat Nectar’s lack of coherence. The second single, “Yukon (Interlude)”, demonstrates this conciseness. Starting with piano and breathy vocals, the song opens up to a quick, lively beat atypical of Miller’s moody style. With vivid imagery like “And I overflow like mercury/Glowing with uncertainty,” it’s easily the best track of the second half, which unfortunately concludes with all of the record’s incomplete ideas.

This is Smithereens’ central issue. Whether it’s an underdeveloped track or one that meanders in a directionless fashion, the album is subject to the same consistency problems as Nectar. It doesn’t help that Smithereens is also less sonically adventurous than its predecessor, instead sticking to Miller’s usual hazy synths and drum machines. Listeners who were unconvinced by Miller’s rather straightforward songwriting and subdued vocal performances on his previous efforts will likely not find anything different here.

However, the vulnerability on display is the main exception to the rule. Miller’s willingness to let his listeners in during his most desperate moments is noteworthy. He closes out the album with, “I’m tired of this madness/Tired of being stranded/I don’t want to be alone.” It’s a sentiment that is present throughout the album where Miller’s narrators long for connection, but when they finally get it, they are clueless on how to handle themselves.

In addition to “Glimpse of Us”, the one track that puts it all together – the soundscape, vocal performance, and songwriting – is “Die For You.” The song opens with shimmery instrumentation with Miller intoning, “I heard that you’re happy without me/And I hope it’s true/It kills me a little/That’s ok ‘cause I die for you.” The synths progress steadily, increasing in intensity to a gorgeous finish. With these two tracks, one may feel frustrated that the rest of the album doesn’t operate at this level of execution. It’s yet another record with the capacity to be great but stumbles due to run-of-the-mill production or impassive vocal delivery. If Miller could combine these elements with his transparent songwriting more frequently, he would surely be an artist to watch out for.

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