On ‘Smithereens,’ Joji Can’t Escape The Past

Before making his official pivot to full-time musicianship, Joji built a career on going viral. The Japanese-Australian artist’s internet ties run deep, tracing through years of provocative uploads as a button-pushing YouTuber with an affinity for shock value before he retired from the platform in 2017. But when he went viral this past June, it was under much different circumstances. Returning with his first single in two years, the heartbreaking piano ballad “Glimpse Of Us,” Joji sparked an outpouring of TikTok posts — now more than a million uploads — from people who, just like him, have never gotten over anything, ever.

“Said I’m fine and said I moved on / I’m only here passing time in her arms / Hoping I’ll find a glimpse of us,” Joji sings, revealing that the placeholder relationship he’s in now doesn’t hold a candle to the one that got away. The comments beneath his post announcing the single’s release are littered with similar replies: “Joji what have you done to me?” “Who hurt you man?” “Remember, first love has a special place, but you still need to move on.” That last one is not a concept that Joji has come around to just yet — and his newly released third studio album Smithereens is tangible proof.

“Glimpse Of Us” opens the 9-track record — which splits itself into two parts with five songs on the first half and four on the latter — as a tone and pace-setting introduction to the unsettled mind of a lovelorn musician. Echoing the thematic threads from Joji’s first two studio albums Ballads 1 and Nectar, in the vein of James Blake, Smithereens revolves around the idea of love that repeatedly slips through the singer’s fingers. But he doesn’t have nearly as much to say about it on this record. With a run-time clocking in at just under 25 minutes and no collaborations, the album attempts to move Joji’s story along by lingering on the internal reverberations of heartbreak.

“Who the hell am I to think that you’re my angel from above?” Joji asks on the acoustic guitar-driven “Dissolve,” which brings the first section of the album to a close. “It’s not right,” he adds. The song captures the singer’s adoption of cynicism in the face of seeing everyone else get their happy ending while not completely understanding what it is that’s functioning as a roadblock heaping him from his own. He ruminates on relationships doomed from the beginning (“Before The Day Is Over”) and those that have run their course (“Feeling Like The End”), but he doesn’t seem to have a deep-rooted interest in fighting for anything more.

Heartbreak has left Joji cynical and acquiescent. On “Die For You,” the runner-up standout on Smithereens behind “Glimpse Of Us,” he doubles down on the endurance of his love, noting that no amount of time or distance between his past will diminish the permanence of his emotions. “I heard that you’re happy without me / And I hope it’s true,” he offers with non-manipulative sincerity. “It kills me a little, that’s okay / ‘Cause I’d die for you.” It’s another recurring motif that can have a tendency of feeling inherently repetitive, especially given its appearance throughout each of Joji’s albums. But the hope is that once he’s gotten this out of his system, maybe a door will open for his future releases to usher in a sense of healing.

On the second half of the record — produced mostly by Joji with every song title blaring like an alarm in all-caps — the singer commits to spending some time on topics that aren’t related to his sad boy R&B yearnings, though even those reflections are drenched in cynicism. On “Yukon (Interlude),” he laments about the time passing by as he moves through life, using an unexpected mid-song tempo shift to replicate a search for boundless freedom from a racing mind beholden to external expectations. “I can’t be young forever,” he considers, adding in the outro: “Empty choir, operated from above / My voice will be their voice until I’m free / My hands will be their hands until I’m free.”

For the first 22-minutes of Smithereens, Joji reinforces the tone of voice he’s established across his releases as a musician with authentic goals beyond making people laugh online. But the trope that he’s landed on, the identity of a sad boy R&B musician, runs the risk of feeling easily overdone, particularly when there aren’t any major breakthroughs or developments in the narrative to set apart one downward spiral from another. The record’s shimmering production is a welcome distraction from the amount of time spent circling the drain on the same thematic elements.

On the album’s final track, another layered piano ballad titled “1AM Freestyle” that comes in at just under two minutes, Joji still hasn’t moved on — something he communicated at the top of the record, as well — but, he at least expresses a longing to detach himself from the past. “And I’m tired of this madness,” he admits. “Tired of being stranded / I don’t wanna be alone.” It’s his lasting sense of self-awareness that saves Smithereens from the fate of being repetitive filler in his discography.

Joji isn’t releasing album after album about the same isolating burden he carries from falling in love because he thinks that’s all there is to his story as an artist. He recognizes it as an obstacle preventing him from moving forward, like his freedom is glowing in the distance and he’s close enough to see it but just out of its reach. When “1AM Freestyle” concludes with a note of exhaustion, the album loops back around to “Glimpse Of Us,” setting the cycle in motion once again and recalling the wise notion a fan dropped in the comments: “Remember, first love has a special place, but you still need to move on.”

Smithereens is out now via 88Rising. Get it here.

Joji is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.