“Decide” is the newest album by actor/musician Joe Keery, popular for playing Steve Harrington on the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” Keery showed promise and technical proficiency on his first album under the Djo moniker, “Twenty Twenty,” and now he’s back with a new album that embellishes the D.I.Y. production with higher quality instrumentals and extravagant song structures.
Everything great about “Twenty Twenty” is improved and expanded upon in “Decide,” but there’s something missing on this new album: the touch of Keery that gave “Twenty Twenty” its tonal flavor and amateur appeal. “Twenty Twenty” sounded like the product of excellent equipment and meticulous song-writing, and “Decide” expands on that too, but without the same effect.
On the very first track, “Runner,” Keery comes in with cinematic synth sounds and a computer-age voice distortion, but it doesn’t take long to discern them as recycled Daft Punk effects. The sound is so recognizably like Daft Punk that it comes off as bold, or maybe blazé, to employ their trademark sound. Many of the synths on this track, not to mention the others where he does this, sound like they were ripped right out of “Discovery” or “Random Access Memories.”
The following track “Gloom” steps away from the Daft Punk sound only to jump smack dab into the Talking Heads. Keery’s vocal inflections are drastically different than on “Runner” and sound practically identical to David Byrne’s, lead singer for the Talking Heads. Mimicking two recognizable trademark vocals on the very first tracks of this album is BOLD, but more importantly demonstrates a lack of personal identity from Keery in his music. Who is he trying to be?
Undeniably, “Decide” is a well constructed, well composed, and technically adept album. The instruments zoom across the sonic plane, bouncing from ear-to-ear, the baroque-inspired musical passages and bombastic piano runs are something to be admired, but at the end of the day, all the technical excellence feels like it is in service of nothing. Keery is basically the Jacob Collier of pop music.
The rest of the album remains consistent in its influences, but still stands in the realm of mimicry rather than individuality. It has the production and sound qualities of a Mac DeMarco or Tame Impala project, but none of the heart or novelty of those contemporaries.
Even the ’80s synths, that feature and provide variety to the latter half of the album, are cliché textures that come straight off the “Stranger Things” soundtrack or from ’80s Youtube remixes of contemporary pop songs. They shimmer, they sparkle and they’re very colorful, but they don’t add anything substantial to the bigger picture.
There’s a divide between proficiency and expression on this album, which doesn’t seem like a gap that isn’t entirely out of Keery’s grasp to bridge. With either a stronger theme or another creative partner to help channel his excellent technical knowledge, Keery could just as well be the next Daft Punk or Talking Heads if he can define his individual sound instead of borrowing the sounds of others.
Of all the tracks, “On and On” is the exception to the derivative palette of “Decide;” it has the same, similar instrumentals but the lyrics finally transcend the medium and contain the only moments of cultural zeitgeist. Keery sings about his enslavement to social media, his addiction to content consumption and the forfeiting of his identity to the algorithm on his phone, “In my bed/On my phone/Locked away/Free to go/TV on/Every night/Scrolling on/On and on, and on, and on.” There’s a clever employment of repetition in the lyrics that mimics and complements a repeating synth line bounces up and down.
He also reveals his only beats of personality on the refrain, when he brings up his fears of environmental apocalypse, “Something is about to break/The fault line has been fractured/Maybe/it’s not too late/To learn how to love each other/What’s it gonna take to change it?/Don’t you wanna save this planet?/Blame it on manipulation, we’re human after all.”
Outside of that song though, the refrains meander on and on while the vocals hide buried in Keery’s technicolor exercise of modalities and key changes. Keery has a lot of talent and an undeniable touch for music production, but he lacks a human element on “Decide” that emits feelings of cold distance instead of familiarity which, ultimately, leaves the album falling flat.