Creeping into the music scene just in time for winter’s gloom to take hold, Joji’s SMITHEREENS is a heart-wrenching tale between the miseries of having lost a lover and holding onto painfully distant memories of the past. Melancholy lyrics and emotional piano intros abound, paying homage to Joji’s origins, and bringing back a sound many fans have been aching for since before BALLADS I. However, no matter how beautiful Joji’s airy vocals and lo-fi productions are in SMITHEREENS, the album left a lot to be desired. Unlike the artistic breakthrough and innovative production we saw with previous album Nectar, the majority of SMITHEREENS feels reminiscent of (and even indistinguishable from) Joji songs we’ve already heard.
With under 25 minutes of playtime and only nine tracks, this third album of Joji’s definitely isn’t his magnum opus, or even one of his more notable works. The first track on SMITHEREENS, lead single “Glimpse of Us,” garnered anticipation of what Joji’s next work would be. However, the impending reveal of what he has been keeping fans in the dark for, preceded by the releases of two more singles, ultimately left us with a cliffhanger. The thematic nature and repetitive themes fell flat, showing no new insight from the artist thematically, making the album feel rushed.
To Joji’s credit, he sure knows what his audience wants. Despite the lukewarm reception online, with some fans unimpressed over the short, seemingly unfinished album and others vouching for the apparent stand-alone quality of each song, SMITHEREENS still quickly took the third spot on US Billboards.
There was certainly some merit to Joji’s album. Breaking away from his home in the R&B and pop genres, Joji’s artistic maturity shines through in his new experimentative lo-fi production. If Joji knows how to do anything, it’s how to make his audience cry. The painfully heartbroken SMITHEREENS album may not have been a significant moment in his career, but nonetheless was wholly Joji, and enthusiastically welcomed after his two year hiatus.
The world fell to its knees for “Glimpse of Us” following its release as a single, with the song quickly becoming one of Joji’s most popular, and for good reason. Minimal production, including nothing but Joji’s vocals and instrumental piano running throughout, contributes to its authentic and raw emotion as Joji tries to find a glimpse of his ex through this lyrical replication of his loneliness. Painting the scene of what it feels like to be hung up on someone, “Glimpse of Us” was a perfect choice to set the theme of SMITHEREENS, tapping not into heartbreak, but the heartache that follows.
The rest of Disc 1 certainly didn’t disappoint, contributing to the overarching story Joji weaves through the album of grieving an ex-lover. “Feeling Like The End” retraces the hopeless feeling of the difficult return to normalcy post-heartbreak, perfectly capturing the same sense of sorrowful longing through lo-fi beats and Joji’s special R&B spin on it all with high synths, and the pull of a strong bass. Joji brings us with him as he explores various stages of grief, exposing his vulnerability when he doesn’t “think it will get better.” The song may not have been the best piece of the album, given its somewhat unmemorable chorus, but poignant lyrics make “Feeling Like The End” fit seamlessly into the emotions SMITHEREENS attempts to capture.
“Die For You” deceivingly opens like a lullaby before Joji joins in, once again quickly plunging us into melancholy and longing, singing to an absent ex-lover, “you know I’d still die for you.” Joji bargains with himself, wavering between confessions of love and attempts to move on, despite knowing there’s no returning to the past. This piece was the most distinctively Joji out of the whole album, abandoning the lo-fi production of other tracks, and instead returning to the funky production we saw from him in Nectar by relying on his signature R&B indie production style.
Contrary to what one might expect from suddenly all-capitalized titles, the four tracks on Disc 2 feel like interludes that might be put between more refined, complete tracks, yet there aren’t any. Each song clocks in at around two minutes long, and all four are characterized by mellow beats and minimalist production.
The chill, lofi-esque sound and auto-tuned vocals of “BLAHBLAHBLAH DEMO” are met with dark and restless lyrics. Joji yearns for some reassurance that he isn’t the only one who feels lost and out of place in this world, and wishes to “be forever young” and have time to keep trying. In almost a call-and-response fashion, that anxiety of one’s youth disappearing is given a definitive, even forlorn answer in “YUKON (INTERLUDE).” Also pre-released as a single, the track is a deceptively simple mix of piano notes and synthesized beats, but the lyrics carry a certain weight to them. Joji takes the listener on a night drive, as he recalls and tries to hold on to what used to be, but recognizes time slipping past his hands.
Joji has an uncanny ability to produce soft and muted vocals—one might even call his tone monotonous at times—that are simultaneously deeply emotional. By the end of the track, he comes to the lonely conclusion that “I can’t be forever young.” Short and simple, but a resolution that hits hard and likely resonates with many as we all grow older each year: Joji successfully conveys feelings of helplessness and wistfulness. SMITHEREENS concludes with “1AM FREESTYLE,” an unfinished letter to a past lover. Still stuck in the past, he reveals that he has been reliving their memories, tired of constantly being in his head. “I don’t wanna be alone” is the final line of the album, a conclusive statement and woeful cry that encapsulates the album’s underlying tone.
SMITHEREENS might not have blown standards to smithereens, but it is undeniably Joji and so it delivers. The softened, minimalistic beats harken back to his earlier releases, returning to his SoundCloud roots. Yet the album evolves that unfinished yet polished lofi sound, as Joji takes a darker and more mature approach to music in a way that is sure to please both old and new audiences.
VOICE’S CHOICES: Glimpse of Us, Die For You, 1AM FREESTYLE