Reviews

Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee Brings a Sharpened Sense of Joy and Change

So begins the third full length LP from Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast. “Paprika” swells, growing with a rapturous exclamation of joy and clarity—strongly signaling a reawakening for Zauner after a long, all-encompassing sleep.

Lucidity came slowly
I awoke from dreams of untying a great knot
It unraveled like a braid into what seemed were thousands
Of separate strands of fishing line

Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee is out tomorrow via Dead Oceans, following up her critically acclaimed 2017 album Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Soft Sounds was a spectacle, dotted with somber songs that tugged and ebbed against somber topics like death, remorse and a blurring sense of identity. The album—like Zauner’s recently released memoir “Crying in H Mart” – is gravitationally centered around the death of Zauner’s mother from cancer in 2014. Specifically, the album details Zauner struggles with the loss of not only a mother, but an individual who helped solidify her cultural connection to her Korean roots. Although the album has several songs that deviate from that central topic (like the excellent “Machinist”), there are few moments of sincerity or hope; just repeating instances of Zauner overflowing with helplessness.

In stark contrast, Jubilee is Zauner’s conscious, open commitment to joy. The album is filled with jazz instrumentals, pop ballads and guitar riffs, all underlined by a euphoric sort of optimism fueled by a realization of one’s own individual power. Zauner is deliberately finding joy in being herself, in spite of the hardships she has faced in the past.

Following “Paprika” is “Be Sweet,” the first single off Jubilee released back in March. An upbeat lead single that admittedly flew under my radar the first few listens, “Be Sweet” is Zauner pleading to a lover to be a person that she can believe in. The song is bursting with hope, and the chorus is filled with electrifying vocals from both Zauner and backup vocalists that all in all make the song feel full and empowering.

Next up is “Kokomo, IN,” a dreamy ballad featuring country-like twangs and soothing violins, over Zauner singing about popping wheelies in an unexciting flyover state. The song sounds like one long, lucid daydream, as if Zauner is making the most of a bored state of mind while waiting for someone to return back to her. “Kokomo, IN” is a love letter written to pass the time until she’s reunited with her love again—a moment of anticipation that makes the wait well worth it.

Several tracks later is “Posing in Bondage,” my personal favorite song off Jubilee. “Posing in Bondage” is somewhat reminiscent of older songs from Soft Sounds, evident by slower, waning instrumentals and vocal distortions. About a third of the way through the song between the first chorus and the second verse is a magnificent little bridge of reverberating voices and a rapid tapping of some sort of instrument (a xylophone?) that sounds wonderful. “Posing in Bondage” is a “song about two people who want so badly to connect but are never quite able to do so.” Zauner wants closeness, proximity, passion with another, but something prevents them from doing so. In the second verse, Zauner delivers a mournful, albeit beautifully spoken statement of having experienced painful emotions that she wishes she could forget, but can’t: “When the world divides into two people / Those who have felt pain / And those who have yet to / And I can’t unsee it / Although I would like to.”

Next is “Sit,” a grunge-y, guitar rock song that sounds like static electricity. The song washes over you, and the lyrics are difficult to interpret on its own. It is a song that sounds like slow stumbling—that’s the best way I can describe it. It’s as if Zauner is singing from the perspective of someone who is slightly drunk, teetering around an elevator and onto the hotel floor before them—trudging their way back to their room, confused and with cracks in a façade. It’s about missing someone and the feeling they made you feel, but an anticipated sense of sadness is switched with an emotionless acceptance of something that’s gone too soon.

Savage Good Boy” sounds a lot like Grimes, especially harking back to her most recent album and songs “Kill V. Maim.” In “Savage Good Boy,” Zauner fondly adopts the persona of a masculine, money-conscious man. Although it comes off more like a fever dream, Zauner playfully toys with the idea of being a self-reliant, calculated masculine figure. She wants to be that sort of savage boy that takes care of someone solely based on the crutch of their own confidence.

Then comes “Tactics,” a slow-moving track that sounds like Zauner is singing to a small crowd in an empty cafe, with nothing but a violinist and drummer to support her. “Tactics” is a great song for a rainy day, a song about love moving away slowly and distantly.

Rounding out Jubilee is “Posing for Cars,” a song nearing seven minutes in length. Lyrically, “Posing for Cars” gives us a lot to unpack, but seems to find Zauner waking up from the aforementioned fever dream, having given us everything she can unpack in a short ten song span. In the second half of the song is an electric guitar solo played by Zauner herself with extraordinary tone, an emotive experience that nicely rounds out the album as whole until it eventually blurs with white noise intensity.

Jubilee is a great album that finds Zauner taking her own personal experiences—specifically newfound joy, confidence and understanding—and resurrecting them in ways that feel theatrical. The album’s instrumentation is remarkable, with tracks seamlessly fusing jazz overlays with a throng of violins, only to switch to an electric guitar the next minute. Most obviously, the album feels like Zauner rediscovering the capacity for joy within her, which is made more meaningful because of the evolution she had to go through to get to this point.

Jubilee is out tomorrow.

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