If you know George Miller primarily as the shock-comedy expert who helped make Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” go viral with a series of puerile hip thrusts in 2013, his new album under the name Joji might be evidence of one of the greatest transformations in modern pop culture. Ballads 1 is elegiac and prettily pout-faced; Miller used to make you cringe, Joji makes you cry.
Like most transformations, this one wasn’t immediate. Miller started putting out music in 2014, initially under the name Pink Guy; he trafficked in rap that stuck close to the outrageously click-tastic videos he made as Filthy Frank. But soon he began to release more meditative, melodic songs, settling on the name Joji. In 2017, Joji put out In Tongues, a bruised, sensitive, one-note EP; he also issued an official statement ending Filthy Frank.
In Tongues felt like the same song over and over — some days, hearing yet another dour ballad gloomed up with unvarying drum programming is cause enough for anguish, even before you process the singer’s glum lyrics. But the EP showed Joji’s mainstream ambitions. He’s even more attuned to pop’s prevailing winds on Ballads 1: A track like “Test Drive” could play after the entire catalog of 6lack, Halsey’s “Without Me,” Billie Eilish’s “Bitches Broken Hearts,” Annuel Aa’s “Brindemos” or Lil Wayne’s “What About Me” and no one would bat an eye.
This sound is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean Joji’s not doing it well: In fact, he appears to have mastered a particular kind of self-deprecating pop. “Give me reasons we should be complete,” he wails on “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” before deciding to cut his losses and bow out of the discussion — “You should be with him, I can’t compete.” In the overly chirpy “Can’t Get Over You,” he announces, “I don’t have no social cues.” His longing becomes nearly sadistic on “Wanted U” — “Punish me, I’m hanging on your noose.”
This could become tiresome, but Joji changes his musical approach several times. He throws angsty guitar bashing into “Why Am I Still in LA” — to which East Coasters might respond: winter — and “Wanted U” is an entirely convincing power ballad in the Eighties tradition, histrionic solo and all. The album ends with a bunch of soft strumming and self-indulgent, pretty, hard-to-discern Autotune singing. The whole thing is a world away from the “Harlem Shake” video; who says people can’t change?