The first time I ever listened to Djo must have been on some suggested songs list back in high school, when I was trolling the indie charts to curate my next vibey playlist around some or another high school emotion I wanted a perfect soundtrack for. Two singles from his debut, “Chateau (Feel Alright)” and “Roddy,” quickly became background tracks for my senior year, ebbing and flowing with their ambient synths and distant vocals. I had a vague awareness that Djo is the moniker of Joe Keery, who plays Steve Harrington in Stranger Things, but I had never seen the show.

Skip to this summer, and I am home again, in the same quarantine house I didn’t leave until January 2021, hanging out with my closest high school friends almost every day. My friend Kari, then currently watching Stranger Things Season 4 with her family, convinced me and our two friends to embark on a mission to watch all 4 seasons in two months. She also made sure to play Djo’s newest single, “Change,” every time we were in the car together. As I got to know the character better in the show, I was tempted to distance myself from the music—it felt almost cringe to be a new Stranger Things fan so enamored with Steve Harrington’s persona on the show that she decided to listen to Keery’s music too. But something kept me coming back—I couldn’t stop listening to this track. It became my travel anthem as I flew back and forth to Oklahoma and Europe visiting family and shot up to one of my top 5 Spotify songs of all time in just a couple months. Something about the opening drumbeats calmed my anxiety every time I boarded a new train or exited another airplane, the spacey synths and soaring, undulating vocals cocooning me in a mental safety blanket. Eventually, I gave up my resistance to Keery as an actor and musician and found out that he had actually been making music before he was ever cast on Stranger Things.

Now the whole album, DECIDE, is out, having been released on September 16th. Although it is certainly influenced by some of his experiences on the show, the album is a rollicking tour through Keery’s entire psyche, delving into many memories, musical influences, and moods. Songs like “Gloom” and “Figure You Out” reveal such obvious references to 80s musical icons like the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and DEVO that they should feel derivative—but Keery masterfully combines all these styles in a way that feels fresh and unexpected. Beginning the album with chromatic synths in “Runner,” Djo cascades into the bouncing anthem “Fool,” meanders towards the circular “Climax,” and glitches up the gloomy apocalypse of “Go For It.” Atmospherically, the album feels like a despondent romp into the retro-futuristic world you might see if Blade Runner had been made in 2022: the decaying cityscape plastered with floating neon billboards, flying cars above filthy crowded streets, and algorithm-deadened eyes looking out through VR headsets. Keery combines this background anxiety with a kind of flippant joy, choosing to have fun with glowing rhythms and cheerful melodies despite everything else going on. In this way, the album perfectly captures the ethos of Gen Z: although many of us are rightly terrified of the future, we try to forget these worries with humor and irony, a sense of the capital “A” Absurd. Keery’s musical references to the 1980s are relevant not only because he stars in a TV show set in that time period—they also link our current historical moment to that era, when the world was teetering on the edge of nuclear holocaust and socioeconomic collapse, at the height of the Cold War and Reagan Era.

Keery’s Gen Z sensibility extends into the album’s lyrics, especially in tracks like “Half Life” and “On and On,” in which he struggles with the omnipresence of technology and social media in our lives and popular consciousness. Keery’s lyrics address his own experiences, especially his complex relationship to fame and authenticity coming out of Stranger Things. But overall, this album puts its finger on the pulse of the 2020s, a time riddled with anxiety, guilt, nihilism, and fear. He frames this despair in a relatable way—everyone has found themselves “Scrolling on and on and on / feed[ing] the algorithm some,” as described in “On and On.” These lyrics hook you into the mindset, the guilt that you feel when you’ve spent hours on TikTok or Instagram having done nothing but make money for strangers selling your data. These despondent feelings lead to our need for distraction to numb the pain:  In “Half Life,” he sings, “The world is changing / And upgrading / Faster than we can control,” reacting with disgust to his own mind-numbing impulses, telling himself “God, you’re a fool / Plugged in / That’s a half life.” He also deals with the powerlessness of our generation in the face of everything going on in the world in “Climax,” revealing that “It terrifies me that there is no plan / The future breaking right on top of me / The waves are washing hope right out of me.” These 21st-century anxieties work their way into almost every song on the album and cast the bright synths and up-tempo tracks in a colder, harsher light. But this doesn’t undermine the energetic, even happy sound of the album—instead, it completes the piece as a portrait of Gen Z, a generation that cannot forget the terrors of the world but desperately wants to.

The perfect punchline for the album is the fact that the final track, “Slither,” blends in seamlessly with the first, “Runner.” If you happen to be listening to the album on repeat, it’s almost impossible to tell without knowing or looking at the album tracklist that it has ended and looped to the beginning. This irony punctuates the album better than a proper, “final” track ever could—although the album spends so much time criticizing algorithms, modernity, technology, and the endless media cycle that overwhelms us with content, it becomes willfully hypocritical by doing the exact same thing. 

Stream DECIDE on all platforms now.


Header art by Hazel Flaherty

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