By Skylar O’Kane
Since her days in college, Michelle Zauner has been making music and performing with bands, from littler known projects like Little Girl, Big Spoon, to the better known Little Big League, to her infamous solo project, Japanese Breakfast. Active since 2013, she has released two albums and a number of singles under her solo project moniker. Her debut Psychopomp is a shoegaze-y album shrouded in sadness from the death of her mother with highlights being tracks such as “Heaven” to the heart-breaking self-titled track of the album, whilst Soft Sounds From Another Planet seems to look at love and relationships with a sci-fi aesthetic.
Almost four years since her last record, Japanese Breakfast has returned with Jubilee, a much more triumphant release than previous albums but not a complete departure from what we know Japanese Breakfast to be. Their experimental pop sound still remains on songs like “Sit,” a synthy, reverby track with noisy, washed-out guitars and a pulsating four-to-the-floor rhythm that feels like a heartbeat. Other songs, however, have a much more organic feel and feature more tangible sounds, such as “Kokomo, IN,” which utilizes strings, acoustic guitar, and slide guitar to create a warm atmosphere that’s reminiscent of The Beatles’ early work.
In an interview for Stereogum, Zauner said this of Jubilee’s second single: “‘Posing In Bondage’ is a ballad about loneliness and longing, a song about two people who want so badly to connect but are never quite able to do so.” To add further context, the single had been reworked for this new album, as it was actually written a few years ago for a series of singles Zauner released with Polyvinyl Records. Whilst the original version of the song is short and humble in its production, this version is big, lush, and two minutes longer. Although I enjoy the slightly flawed production and simplicity of the original single, I believe this new version conveys the complexities of the lyrical content much better, with cleaner production and more varied instrumentation.
Zauner also said that she wanted to embrace joy on this album, but it seems she’s also embraced new sounds as the album bursts with bigger and brighter instrumentation than any previous Japanese Breakfast project. Songs like “Be Sweet,” the first single of the album, seem to embrace the sounds of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, channelling Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with its guitar and bass groove and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with its catchy pop vocals. The penultimate track “Tactics” also harkens to the past but, this time, with the use of slow, romantic strings that wouldn’t feel out of place in a golden age Hollywood movie.
Finally, after a vibrant journey of different sounds and emotions, we reach the album’s close with the final track, “Posing for Cars.” The song starts with just Zauner's vocals and a single plucked guitar. As the song continues, the plucking evolves into strumming and the bareness and somewhat “lo-fi” production of the guitar becomes more apparent. Almost three minutes into the track, the drums kick in along with some mellotron strings and eventually a guitar solo. Ultimately, this song is a beautiful closer that feels like blissful quiet at the end of an enjoyable but exhausting day. It lays things to rest slowly, without ending things on a dull note.
Overall, I found Jubilee to be a vibrant and engaging album that shows Japanese Breakfast evolving as a band while still retaining their identity. Zauner has managed to move on from the bleakness of her past and into a bright new future, while still acknowledging the struggles of life and presenting an interesting take on what it is to be happy. This album won’t make you cry like Psychopomp, but it will show you a way out of the darkness when you’re ready to take it.
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