Written and produced alongside Adam Thein, actor and musician Joe Keery returns for his second album under the pseudonym Djo with the impressively eclectic Decide. Showcasing a natural growth and progression from 2019’s Twenty Twenty, Decide plays with genre and style while maintaining cohesion throughout all 13 tracks. Demonstrating both playfully self-aware lyricism along with a willingness to tinker with genre from 8-bit sounds, throwback synths, and other retro elements, the sophomore album is a clear declaration of an artist’s intent. And it’s pretty good too.
It’s going to be easy to want to compare Djo’s sound to other notable bands. From the obvious likeness to Tame Impala, to the tongue and cheek influences of The Talking Heads, or even sonic notes of Blood Orange, some similarities and inspirations might make it easy to dismiss another, on paper, actor turned singer. But the reality isn’t so much a similar sound but a similar attitude towards making music. There’s a similar theatricality and showmanship that links them and Djo carries on the sound beautifully.
It helps too that Keery, best known for his role as fan favorite Steve Harrington on Netflix’s Stranger Things, has been in the music scene long before his full rise to stardom, having played in Chicago unit Post Animal for several years. The result is less a vanity project than other fellow performers if given the time and assets and more a truly curious and introspective album with timeless musings on growth and leaving adolescence behind while simultaneously utilizing a cacophony of instrumentation and studio production tricks to create a decidedly ambitious and evolving sound.
Immediately striking is the formation as it moves clean transitions between songs. This is especially and immediately notable from the very start with the smooth movement from the opening number “Runner” into its follow up the previously released “Gloom.” Both are imbued with a jaunty exuberance, though the former sticks to formulaic and repetitive lyrics. This allows the musicality to shine but errs close to becoming dull.
This introduces one of the album’s other greatest strengths as it lingers in one stage of the song for just long enough before transitioning into something that deconstructs what came before. The bridges across the board are superb, building into momenta that both fit the existing number while elevating it into something different.
It’s a strength of the album that’s contrasted nicely with the simplicity in lyrics which invite universality. “On + On”, one of the strongest songs on the album is a relatable calling card to the doom-scrolling generation. Fittingly, the lyrics play with repetition as he talks of reading about tragedy and the detached way we’ve all learned to compartmentalize those events. It’s a song that also demonstrates how Decide on the whole thematically aligns instrumentation and lyrics. “On + On” continues with slight variations building on the existing rhythm. “End of Beginning”, another album highlight, builds until Joe Keery is shouting the lyrics.
“End of Beginning” is the best utilization of Keery’s vocals which, while dependable and fitting for the tone of the songs in their light falsetto and staccato enunciation, don’t get the showy moments the instrumentation and incredible production get. Singing “And when I’m back in Chicago, I feel it/Another version of me, I was in it/Oh, I wave goodbye to the end of beginning” with a punctuated sense of vulnerability, it’s one of the truly laid bare moments on the album as he alludes to a past he misses but must leave to grow.
Of all the songs though, it’s the first release “Change” remains the definite highlight. With a decadent onslaught of smooth and moody neo-psychedelic energy, it’s a buzzing and thrumming number that picks apart seeing yourself through the possibilities others hold for you. Sung with mounting energy as the instrumentation dips and swells, the chant of “Something’s happening to me/A passing glance I see/In your eyes/The man that I could be” is a near constant, it’s a fitting stand out for an assured assertion of both the immense skill behind the project, the willingness to push artistic boundaries and, most excitingly, the kind of curiosity in music that delivers enigmatic final pieces of work.
Decide is out now.