Joe Keery knows what you’re probably thinking: another actor with a side musical project? Ugh. To Keery’s credit, making music is more than a passing vanity project; before achieving life-changing fame playing Steve Harrington, the reformed bad boy of stranger things, he played guitar in the Chicago psych-rock band Post Animal. For the past few years, between the roles of murderous carpool driver and beleaguered video game designer, he’s started a solo synth-pop project called Djo. As the nickname, which is pronounced like his first name, suggests, it’s still him, but with a wink.
Djo’s atmospheric second album, Decide, conceals his anxieties of change and identity under an onslaught of synthesizers and Auto-Tune, often in the interest of pleasure but sometimes to his detriment. Written and produced alongside Adam Thein, Decide takes full advantage of the magic of the studio. Opener “Runner” begins with a series of borderline 8-bit bleeps as Keery engages in growth – “People never change / But I must try” – delivered in a crystal clear falsetto. Soon the song transitions into a smoother chromatic sound, all vocoded vocals and savvy electronics that ends in a strangled scream. Sometimes the full-bodied pastiche does not hide a clumsy lyricism. “I know my hair looked good in the bathroom at the bar / Turns out I left my wallet at the bathroom bar” says one such line on the Talking Heads-esque Gloom”. An exploration of the pitfalls of the ego – and a potentially good-natured jab at its own famous mane – it’s a charming attempt to nod to its audience, even if its writing isn’t quite ready to step up to the plate. challenge.
It is ironic, then, that the best bits of Decide tend to be longest, when Keery’s instrumental impulses are allowed to spiral in unexpected directions (those psych rock roots die hard). While agonizing over the grip of social media, “Half Life” shifts between an eerie stillness and bursts of flickering brightness in a way that evokes a dopamine loop. “On and On,” a song about doomscrolling, unfolds over a throbbing swing before soaring into an arena rock-sized percussive breakdown.
Decide is a fun, quirky synth-pop album that proves Keery’s talent, but by its conclusion, a clearer picture of its creator fails to emerge. (A nice exception is “End of Beginning” with its lyrics about returning to Chicago and reconnecting with a past version of himself.) As in his debut TWENTY TWENTY, Djo proudly represents influences like Daft Punk and Tame Impala, borrowing their stuff without adding much in the way of innovation. Still, the lack of personal revelations is forgivable: Keery explicitly said he hoped Djo’s character — he sports a ’70s bowl-cut wig on stage and in promotional photos — would help distance him from his screen roles. There’s something tragic about an album concerned about forgeries of technology made by someone whose fans have also largely bonded with him through the screen. But with Djo, he finds his way into the simulation.