Image courtesy of Shorefire Media.

What does it mean to be lonely? As college students, loneliness is a familiar figure leaning against our door frames. It’s looking at pictures with your high school friends and wondering if you’ll ever feel that close to people you’ve met here.

Japanese singer-songwriter Joji’s work has always concentrated on more than just the sensation of loneliness, and Smithereens is no different; it sketches out the mourning stage, our desperate flails to grasp onto the people and moments. And like that process, there are lulls in the action – leaving the listener to wait for the stronger songs to tie it all together.

Smithereens is Joji’s third studio album, released on Nov. 4, 2022. "Glimpse of Us," released earlier this year, holds the spotlight. Tracks like “1AM Freestyle” and “YUKON (INTERLUDE)” remain close contenders. The blue-green gradient cover is a step away from Joji’s previous album designs – it’s the first one not emblazoned with his face.

Every flamboyantly sad person in our lives listened to “Glimpse of Us” earlier this year. TikToks of ceilings strung with LED lights, cars passing by on the highway and other quietly sad montages abounded. In this lead single, Joji tells us that sometimes, nothing will ever be enough. Nobody will ever compare to a person you once loved, even if they’re willing to, as Joji sings,  “Take the world off [your] shoulders if it was ever hard to move.” “Glimpse of Us” is unequivocally the most powerful song on the album, if only because of its sheer viral reach. It embodies the classic Joji sound – “I said I’m fine / And said I’ve moved on / I’m only here passing time in her arms.” A quintessential sucker punch to the chest.

“Die For You” starts like a lullaby, with soft piano providing a generous base to Joji’s lyrics. Musically, it’s a lighter touch than the heavier, more resonant notes of “Glimpse of Us.” The lyrics seem to be a continuation of the themes presented previously, where he mourns what once was. Now, Joji has learned to let go and wishes them the best, providing a satisfying maturation of his emotional arc. In “Feeling Like The End,” Joji reminisces about their shared memories. The track acknowledges the waiting game that Joji plays, wherein he knows the necessity of moving on. But it descends back into a darker grief, with an amalgamation of hope and resignation. There’s the sense that the veil has dropped when he says, “Don’t think it will get better,” demarcating the death of what little hope he harbored.

On “Dissolve,” Joji explores the feeling of being caught in a limbo of waiting. He’s not waiting to fall asleep, though. Instead, for Joji, the next step is disappearing. “Are we counting sheep until we dissolve?” he sings. By the middle, I began to feel like I was waiting for the next song to begin. Although Smithereens clocks in at a little over 24 minutes long, there seems to be an excessive amount of filler tracks – this sensation is perhaps accentuated by the brevity of the album. The good songs go by too fast, and you’re left to wade through the rest. “Before The Day is Over” and “Dissolve” induce this feeling.  “NIGHT RIDER” starts with a sharper, more eclectic introduction, before fully donning the Joji sound when he sings “Burning forever and ever / Fully blazing / I don’t remember no better days.” The restrained intro mimics the numbness referenced in the lyrics. Its tight rhythms propel the listener forward, but at the same time, the track starts to feel like filler, too.

In “BLAHBLAHBLAH DEMO,” Joji explores a new relationship with determination. “Something tells me we were chosen / So we keep on trying,” he sings. It’s sonically different from the preceding tracks, which sets it apart from the songs that seem to mix together in a depressive haze.

The album both starts and ends on strong notes. “YUKON (INTERLUDE)” is a track that might play over a montage of someone driving away from the city, cloaked in the hazy snows of midwinter. But as the song progresses, the beat picks up, with a steady thrum that drives the pace into something that is a far cry from the slower ballad it starts off as. It’s one of the stronger tracks on this album, reminding the listener of why they’re looping the new Joji album, and is my personal favorite. And of course, “1AM FREESTYLE” ends the album with a haunting sentiment: “I don’t want to be alone.” Its chorus starts with, “You know you can make it / But you can’t make it alone.” He’s accepting help, but still, he is filled with fear. And what’s a Joji album without a healthy dose of existential terror?

Overall, Smithereens falls short of the quality that we’ve come to expect from Joji. Although its singles are admittedly strong, the ratio of the hard hits to filler tracks is unjustifiable on an album that runs for less than half an hour. But for now, I’ll still tune in just for "YUKON (INTERLUDE)." Maybe I’ll listen to it on loop during the snowy trek to Tech next week.