This image is from the official Twitter account of Joji

George Miller has always been an enigma. After blowing up on YouTube in the early 2010s through his “Filthy Frank” character, he began releasing rap-oriented music as Pink Guy, a pink bodysuit-donning, absurdist side character whose songs have become sort of an archetype (in my mind, at least) of the worst of 2010s edgy internet humor. Largely obscured, however, was his other project, Joji, under which he released “serious” music, and which became his main musical outlet with his 2017 debut EP, In Tongues.

In contrast to the loud vulgarity of Pink Guy, Joji’s music has consistently employed a brooding, almost lo-fi aesthetic, with whimpering vocals and beats that balance modern sounds with a vintage feel. This combination has seemingly paid off, judging from the millions of streams and song placements across many a “sad boi” playlist. This isn’t to say that Miller is one-note, necessarily — while he’s keen to tap into particular moods, his last album Nectar did display versatility, as songs scrambled from HBO-teen-show-core synthpop to moody trap, and even a dose of psychedelia, which produced the hauntingly epic “Run.” Despite this, his music often sounds like he’s more interested in the creation of “atmospheres” than engaging songs. Smithereens does little to alleviate this, but it’s still a mild improvement on the Joji formula, as more expressive singing and catchier melodies prove Miller is inching closer toward developing an artistic identity outside “sad vibe music.”

The first thing to notice about Smithereens is that it’s short — like, unusually short. Clocking in at only 24 minutes, it’s by far his shortest LP, beating Ballads 1 by over 10 minutes. To top it off, it’s divided into two unevenly paced discs, the first disc being around two times the length of the second. The length ends up being a double-edged sword. While Nectar was nearly an hour of drowsy despair, the genre juggling made it almost interesting enough to justify its length. Smithereens removes the bloat, making for an easier listen, but sacrifices the ambitious sonic experiments found in its predecessor, as much of the album sticks to his typical muted R&B. Unlike other notable short albums like Kids See Ghosts by the duo Kids See Ghosts or 剃刀乙女 by Ichiko Aoba, few songs on Smithereens actually feel fully realized, with over half of the songs being disjointed hooks or short verses that seem to linger in space until their two minutes are up. The eight-minute-long second disc almost feels like an afterthought, containing a couple of aimless songs to beef up the length. But the most disappointing iteration of this is on the first disc’s “Feeling Like The End.” There’s a lot of potential — subdued guitars suggestive of Doja Cat/SZA’s “Kiss Me More,” bouncy trap drums and a hook that is as desolate as it is ridiculously catchy. But with only two hooks and a short verse, listening to it feels like binging through a single-season TV show that gets canceled right after you finish it (R.I.P. “Generation”) — I like it, but why can’t I get more?

This is unfortunate because Smithereens actually displays some of Joji’s best vocal work. Joji has always been a decent vocalist, but past songs showed how easily his heartfelt poignancy could become mired by his deadpan delivery. On Smithereens, however, his vocals are often gripping, with their delicate touch accentuating his sullen reflectiveness. The lead single “Glimpse of Us” is a prime example — driven by somber piano chords, his singing feels like soft kisses transmitted through my headphones. Intensified by his heavenly falsetto, the lyrics help materialize the reality of his dilemma: “Why then, if she’s so perfect / Do I still wish that it was you?” Smithereens mostly concerns itself with mournful rumination, which isn’t exactly a foray into new territory. The singing, especially on the first disc, often feels more intimate, allowing us a glance into Joji’s world.

Alas, as the album progresses, these tender moments are either harder to come by or blurred in the fog of washed-out instrumentals and hollow atmospheres. “Die For You” is most guilty of this — opening with a chillingly minimal section, colored with mellow keys and post-breakup gloom, it eventually devolves into mediocre Beach House worship, even ending with a drab reverb-drenched guitar solo à la “Space Song.” Whether intentional or not, Smithereens feels excessively preoccupied with trying to check off a list of descriptors (ethereal, dreamy, etc.), with the songs ending up dull and uninteresting. Moments of intense contemplation are made distant, filtered through a cloud of awkward reverb use and half-baked song ideas. But despite these shortcomings, Smithereens still feels like the next step for Joji as a singer and songwriter. When he sings, “It’s so hard just being me sometimes / I wish I could escape out my mind” on “Dissolve,” it feels relatable. But for the first time, it also feels uniquely Joji. 

Daily Arts Writer Thejas Varma can be reached at thejasv@umich.edu.