Stages of joy
The spirit behind the indie-rock powerhouse Japanese Breakfast is Michelle Zauner. The 32-year-old half-Korean singer is a creative dynamo, having dipped her toes in a multitude of fields, such as the music, literary and directing world, among others. The self-professed “workaholic,” which she attributes to her need to avoid depressive thoughts, has built further upon her ethereal, sensual and emotive sound with her new album Jubilee.
The music of this LP demands attention and feels simultaneously riveting, balanced and personal. It’s hard to believe that Japanese Breakfast is only five years old (Zauner was in the self-professed “underrated band” Little Big League before this group) because it is so solid. The album, which she collaborated on with drummer and producer Craig Hendrix, comes after the 2017 release of her last work, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Her notably somber previous work has gotten great reviews upon their release. Past tracks like “Heft” and “Boyish” have been vulnerable and poetic, a sweet musical sob. But Zauner wanted to try something different with this new LP, and the result is a vast ocean of sound. “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow up to be about joy,” Zauner said of the new record in a press release. “For me, a third record should feel bombastic, and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this one.”
And pull out the stops she did. Indie Mixtape said of Jubilee, “Not only is it Zauner’s most accomplished album to date, it might very well be the best indie record of the year.” These songs are an extension of the talent she has already embodied, with songs consistently layered and created with motion and emotion.
In Jubilee, her sound isn’t quite as melancholy as what she’s produced in the past. It’s evident from the first song, “Paprika,” with bright synth shoegaze leading the way to transcendent horns as Zauner sings: “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers/ To captivate every heart?/ Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word/ Oh it’s a rush!” The Satoshi Kon anime of the same name about the blending of dreams and real life is a direct inspiration for the track.
“Be Sweet” is a single released from the album, which she has already performed live on Jimmy Fallon. The bass has a great line in this track, which has strong ‘80s rock inspiration. In your face and unapologetic, this is an ode to strong women. The music video is an equally strong masterpiece, an X-Files indie-inspired video directed by Zauner herself.
Things are toned down in “Kokomo, IN.” Taking a turn into a light acoustic dream world, people see the dimensions of Zauner after hearing three songs with completely different genre inspirations. Still multi-layered and complex with some heart-tugging strings and multiple chord changes, it’s a story about someone reminiscing on their teenage years, and that nostalgia is there in force.
Zauner said the next tune, “Slide Tackle,” is about “battling with your brain, and trying to tackle it into submitting to experiencing joy and happiness.” It’s a song about romanticizing the darkness in life and how to get away from those habits. The bass skips around harmoniously and dances alongside the saxophone and horn solos, which make for an epic end to this track. “Posing In Bondage” is another single from the album. This song is about desperately wanting to connect and be close with someone, but they never quite give back the same energy. With its bellowing intro synth chords, dark horns and something else deep yet sweet in between, it may be the “sad apex” of the album.
“In Hell” is a pessimistic track but feels sort of sweet and sad with very meditative tones, optimistic-feeling guitar and poppy synth. The lyrics contrast perfectly with Zauner singing: “Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t have you/ Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t see you again.” Zauner said that it may be the saddest song she’s ever written.
“Tactics” is a string-based track and evokes imagery of all things orchestral, sad and melancholy. “I was particularly thinking about the Randy Newman song ‘Marie,’ where all the choruses get really wrapped up in this beautiful string moment. It was Craig’s idea to turn [the beginning] into a string intro, and he transposed those chords into the beautiful introduction that you hear there.” Hendrix also suggested a Bill Withers-like-beat here. Initially confused by the suggestion, Zauner let him work anyway, and the trust paid off with Zauner saying, “Oh my God, that Bill Withers thing — that’s amazing.”
The 10 tracks of Jubilee tell a story like that of a pop art person experiencing life’s highs and lows, and it flows together insanely well. “Even as a teenager, when I made mix CDs for people, it all had this sort of track flow: I like to start off very in-your-face, and kind of chill out towards the end and have this almost, like, denouement,” Zauner said to NPR.
This album has been over a year in the making. Scheduled to be released in 2019, it was pushed back due to the pandemic. Zauner said, even after all this time, she loves it even more.