Joji: Smithereens - Album Review
When Joji released Glimpse of Us in the summer, I didn’t expect it to become his biggest hit to date. I can see why it struck a chord with so many - the heartfelt lyrics, the plaintive and pared-back piano-led production, and an angelic vocal performance all make for a beautiful listen. Much has been written about the artist formerly known as Filthy Frank’s pivot from problematic prankster to alt-R&B prince, and Glimpse of Us encapsulates that shift perfectly.
Glimpse of Us didn’t resonate with me in the same way that swathes of Nectar did. Maybe it was the lack of his input in production after producing or co-producing almost every track on his previous releases. Or maybe it felt very by-the-numbers compared to previous Joji songs, which also displayed an expert understanding of pop structure while also revelling in chaos. While pristine piano ballads aren’t new territory for Joji, a track like Attention from BALLADS 1 had a melody worthy of the Backstreet Boys that was elevated to new heights with the thrilling vocal layering and earth-shaking distortion. Glimpse is a beautiful song, but Joji’s best songs are more than just beautiful.
Thankfully, Glimpse is a red herring of sorts, in that it’s by far the sparsest track on the record. While Smithereens is an album containing some of Joji’s most conventional songs yet, it’s an excellently written one that doesn’t completely jettison what makes him such an exciting artist. As a display for Joji’s underrated vocal talent, it’s perfect, and the sequencing is sublime. It’s a more understated listen than any of his previous albums, but that’s no bad thing - it’s further proof that he’s an expert at crafting lo-fi pop nuggets.
While Nectar had its fair share of outside songwriters and producers, Joji has seemingly delegated more aspects of creative control than previously. While there’s debate about the accuracy of some of the credits, the CD booklet shows a greater reliance on outside songwriters and producers than before. While the outside production is very sympathetic and in-keeping with Joji’s own style (particularly BLAHBLAHBLAH DEMO, which would fit right at home next to any of Ballads’ highlights), it’s a shame that he’s only had a hand in the production of two tracks on the album. It’s unsurprising that they’re both highlights - NIGHT RIDER is reminiscent of Frank Ocean circa Blond with its intense bass and vocal processing, while YUKON (INTERLUDE) is an instant classic with propulsive piano hooks and inventive instrumentation.
There’s a concept of sorts running throughout Smithereens, albeit one I can’t fully follow as of yet. It’s split into two theoretical discs, with the first five songs and last four songs making for two uneven halves of a whole. There’s also the quirk that BLAHBLAHBLAH, YUKON, and 1AM FREESTYLE are labelled as a demo, interlude, and freestyle respectively - despite all three feeling like complete and carefully constructed songs, and not, well, demos, interludes, or freestyles. Even though the sequencing works beautifully sonically, it’s a strange way to end an album, particularly such a short one. That’s arguably the album’s biggest flaw for me - with more time, it feels like some of the concepts could be more fleshed out, and a stronger sonic identity could be developed.
That being said, it’s still a great album and there’s plenty to love here. Between the gorgeous string arrangements in Before The Day Is Over and the heavenly Die For You, it’s got some of Joji’s prettiest songs yet, which is really saying something when he’s the guy who wrote Like You Do and Sanctuary. His vocals have arguably never sounded better than on tracks like the dreamlike Dissolve and the aforementioned Glimpse of Us, and BLAHBLAHBLAH is a truly weird moment on an album that doesn’t have enough of them.
The album’s two highlights are perhaps the two songs that feel the most different from each other. It’s unsurprising that Die For You is being pushed as the next single - it’s a deserved successor to Slow Dancing In The Dark, a heartbroken lament that immediately ranks among his best songs. On the opposite end of the spectrum is YUKON, a stone-cold banger that will soundtrack my late night drives for eternity. Together they display Joji at his very best, equally adept with a beautiful pop ballad and an uptempo breakbeat blitz.
When I got into Joji with 2020’s Nectar, it felt like a portfolio of sorts for his brilliant pop vision. With titanium choruses and truly inventive production, it remains one of my favourite albums of the decade. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that Smithereens doesn’t match up - how could it? However, when taken on its own merits, it’s a tight record that presents a strong case for a fascinating songwriter and arranger. Where he’ll go from here, only he knows, but you’re gonna want to be there to find out.
Highlight tracks: YUKON (INTERLUDE), Die For You, 1AM FREESTYLE
Key lyric: I overflow like mercury, glowing with uncertainty.
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Read more of their articles here.
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