Album Review: Japanese Breakfast – ‘Jubilee’

Posted: by The Editor

Indie rock fans have been waiting for the next record from Japanese Breakfast for the past few years. After the titanic success of 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Michelle Zauner could have taken her sound in any direction and had it received with a celebratory embrace. Now, that next record is here and has certainly seen that exact reception – and with good reason. Entitled Jubilee, it’s the natural next step for the project. Across its wide soundscape, we can hear Zauner keeping the icy, space-age tendencies of Soft Sounds From Another Planet and the emotionally dense songwriting of Psychopomp with her, but set her sights on fresh territory. The record is also, according to all its promotional material, and nearly every other writer who has tried to describe it, a “record about joy.” I bristle at this description. It feels like an oversimplification of an album that, while buoyant and pop-forward, still wrestles with darkness, as does much of Zauner’s prior work.

Not that for a record to be truly joyful it has to be free of complications, but that isn’t what comes across with that framework. Zauner emerges with some triumph in subject and sound, but to sand off the messy edges and coat them in glossy yellow undersells so much of the more harrowing themes lurking below that make this record great. Take what is perhaps the most outwardly positive cut, “Be Sweet.” The song is a high-octane stunner and sees Zauner asking her lover to show her kindness. Her vocals reach the top of her range, just one way we see her pushing herself on Jubilee. While the song feels like a bright, bubbly pop song, there’s this pleading nature to its chorus, and it’s made more interesting to have that extra emotional level there.

“Be Sweet” is just one of Jubilee’s flawless pop songs. Continuing the record’s theme of joyful in tone, existential sadness in execution, “Slide Tackle” glides across the listener’s consciousness with uncanny splendor. Composed of several sounds specific to this project, there is no one else who could have crafted it. It feels like space-age pop but grounded, with an extensive saxophone featured in its outro. Zauner is no stranger to this, as Soft Sounds single “Machinist” has a similarly grand moment with the instrument. The strumming guitars highlighted in its second verse are memorable and addicting.

Michelle Zauner’s songwriting has several identifiable modes, several vantage points that it takes. Whether she is writing with sincerity, examining human relationships, or taking the point of view of evil men and speculating what that might be like, there’s always total commitment. After a series of albums that show how much growth Zauner has undergone, her new album feels like the highest marker yet. That last mode, in which the artist casts herself as a villain, gets used here on “Savage Good Boy.” The song ,worked on with Alex G, is a purposefully exaggerated plea from a rich man who wishes to lure a young woman into his care. He wants to whisk them both away, down into a bunker, where they will live forever and hoard their wealth. She could easily do this in a way that feels heavy-handed, but Zauner knows only subtly. The synth lines are propulsive, and its vocal melody feels like a siren’s song. On one level, the listener knows we’re supposed to see Zauner skewering her subject, but the arrangement still draws us in.

Though she is reticent to discuss its meaning, any play-through of Jubilee will find its listener drawn to attention on “Sit.” An outlier of sorts on a record so drawn to baroque instrumentation, “Sit” is a cold synth-pop number that sounds thoroughly like the record’s lone storm cloud, little silver lining offered. Zauner’s vocals are blinding, the synth lines dark blue and murky, it’s not a song you fall in love with, but a song you get lost inside of.

Perhaps it is because her earliest Japanese Breakfast songs were those born of traumatic experience that when Zauner writes about these moments, it is unfailingly affecting. “In Hell” comes late in Jubilee’s tracklist, but more than stands out. With my luck you’ll be dead within the year / I’ve come to expect it / There’s nothing left to fear, at least there’s that — the track’s opening lines are delivered with a half-smile. Three albums removed from the loss of her mother to cancer which inspired much of Psychopomp, we find ourselves with this song, about the loss of what is presumably the very dog mentioned in “In Heaven.” Zauner doesn’t sing the track in a place of acceptance, but from one of understanding, and its upbeat tempo and lush arrangement make it one of her most interesting songs to date. The sparkling, roseate synths that follow its chorus are disarming. They sound so positive, like they too are trying to smile through it all.

Jubilee is not just a record about joy, though its title still feels quite apt. The word doesn’t solely encompass an outpouring of levity but also acknowledges the hard times overcome. Michelle Zauner does exactly this. While she’s grasping at her joyous future, she’s holding on to the things that stood in the way, and nodding to how they’ve helped her grow. They’re not swept under the rug. Wherever Zauner takes Japanese Breakfast next, and when we can hear that, is ultimately up to her alone. She has given us as listeners more than enough to hold us over until then and given what could be her magnum opus.

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great/ Phenomenal

Eric Bennett | @violet_by_hole

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