Please allow me to break the fourth wall here for the sake of transparency: I’m completely enamored with Joji’s music, and for that reason I can’t promise that this will be a proper critique. I expect this to occupy some intersection between a musical highlight reel and all-out fangirling, sometimes vacillating between the two, sometimes blurring the lines between those categories, but I think any discussion of Joji’s music for me would have to begin with how Joji’s music began for me.
Fall quarter of my junior year ended on a low note — I was trying to overcome feelings of unrequited love for someone I was crushing on for over 18 months, it was finals week, I was stressed and sad and hurt. Joji’s “Slow Dancing in the Dark” came up on my YouTube autoplay at the end of a playlist I’d titled with several expletives. I let it play, and immediately I loved it (oh the mighty YouTube algorithm!). The visual imagery of an awkward fawn balancing on its legs in dark teal lighting, dying slowly as it stumbles through a cityscape with a bloody arrow in its back, so astutely embodies the acute emotional agony of unrequited romantic love. The lyrics provided a balm to my broken heart (“I don’t want a friend … I want my life in two”), and thus filled hours of impassioned karaoke and catharsis. This is how my interest in Joji’s music began.
Since then, Joji’s music has been woven into my life at strange intervals — I first heard “Run” while riding home in a 5-SURE on a night where I was feeling overly talkative with the driver. Strange snapshots like these fill my memory, forging connections between my life and his songs, which perhaps explains my inexorable bias towards his music. Needless to say, his new album “Nectar” was the week three pick-me-up I needed.
The album begins with a track called “Ew,” which introduces itself with soft piano chords and Joji’s crooning vocals. In a video released on Joji’s Youtube, the song is accompanied by several repeating shots of a lava river flowing languidly, glowing a mesmerizing bright orange. As the song falls into the chorus, Joji sings in falsetto, “Teach me to love just to let me go … I can’t believe that I’m not enough,” and the viewer is sucked into the repeating shots, pondering the perplexing harmony between the thick, slow, yet intensely powerful lava and the haunting melancholy of the music.
The album proceeds to engage the listener in a sort of emotional whiplash. The disillusionment scaffolded by “MODUS”’s fast tempo and soft, long chorus — words of disappointment and inadequacy delivered in a cocoon of a club-like beat. “Tick Tock” breaks from this gloom — or so it seems initially. A thick, booming, jumpy intro where Joji sings of wrist watches and money, elements endemic to songs about arrogance and fame, falls into a chorus that speaks of “loving in pain” in low vocals. Joji brags about “hitting the jackpot” in one line while he “wishes you were here with me now so I could feel some” in the next line. The album as a whole continues in this pattern: the sweet, buoyant optimism of “Sanctuary” juxtaposed against the feelings of romantic failure presented in “Run,” the fame-drunk arrogance of “Pretty Boy” with the gentle despondency of “Like You Do.” In “Daylight,” when Joji says “I don’t care if you’ve moved on/I’m not lying in bed with a f***ed up head,” we are, as listeners, simply unable to believe him.
The music video for “Pretty Boy” is strangely mesmerizing. It features three men, their faces heavily altered by plastic surgery, strolling through a cloudy beach town in grainy footage. These men comprise Joji’s imaginary boy band, “The Pretty Boys,” and imbue the video with an ineffable visual phantasmagoria that I struggle to describe even after days of rumination. Their faces are bloated and stiff so as to appear like a mask, their movements robotic as they walk through the ocean. They preen in mirrors and struggle to mouth the words of the song through puffy, colorless lips. There is a certain look of confusion in each of The Pretty Boys’ faces as they stroll through the water, yet there is a sense of unity among them as they stand in strangely ordered formations before the camera.
Several feelings are conjured through this video: solidarity, stoicism, loneliness, alienation. The song itself is equally disorienting: scratchy, auto-tuned, unassuming, off-key, at times downright bleating. The Pretty Boys’ inability to emote because of their tightly sculpted faces gives off a repressed, cloistered air; The Pretty Boys deliver a chic but alien impression, living out of the scope of reality, yet adhering to the expectations presented by their physical forms.
As an album, “Nectar” is as sickly as it is sweet. It presents itself as a series of snapshots: pauses that are frustratingly shallow, haunting glimpses of emotion that are carried away into the next moment before their entirety can be fully explored. The album is both vulnerable and closed-off, painfully sincere and markedly arrogant. Sad lyrics are enclosed in party-like beats, indulgently sad songs are intermixed with bolder, more spiteful ones, and even going a step deeper, lines which seem to endorse the “rich and famous” lifestyle are alternated with lines that poignantly obstruct such endorsement, almost acting as an asterisk or pained disclosure. “Nectar” seems to be grasping for love and intimacy; “Nectar” is sex, desire, impurity and lack of sincerity; “Nectar” is the embodiment of the liminal space between hedonistic pleasure and the aspiration for something more real.
The videos invoke images of aliens and space travel, lava and cracked earth, terrifying treks through freakishly long limos casted in ghastly blue lighting, and three men on a beach with faces warped by plastic surgery; all of these images form complementary forces which endow “Nectar” with its essence. “Nectar” is passionate, powerful, alien and familiar; “Nectar” is fantastical, terrifying, poignant and down-to-earth.
In an interview with tmrw magazine, Joji said he’s “not chasing anything amazing or legacy-related” with this album, but he might have done just that. Even if other reviewers don’t agree, Joji’s music will always be my sanctuary from my hopeless romanticism. His music will always be something to run to, and it will never be an afterthought. Okay, enough puns. Check out “Nectar” and give it (gimme) love.