Album Review: Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
by Groove Girl // PB & Jams
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 itself is only five years old (Zauner was in the self-professed underrated band Little Big League before this group.) Zauner has managed to create music that is hard to make: the kind that stimulates the whole mind instead of one half of it. Music that is nostalgic, weird, beautiful and mesmerizing.
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 styles 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. And the album oozes all things joy, in all of its stages of elation and confusion. Even the persimmons on the cover represent the joy of gift giving in East-Asian culture.
Zauner continues by saying, “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 even 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.”
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!” Parts of the melody match the theme taken from the Satoshi Kon anime of the same name about the blending of dreams and real life, which Zauner says was a direct inspiration.
Things are toned down in “Kokomo, IN.” Taking a turn into an acoustic dream world, we begin to feel the dimensions of Zauner after hearing three songs with completely different genre inspirations. With multi-layered strings and multiple chord changes, it’s a story about someone reminiscing on their teenage years. The nostalgia here is formed in a constructed melody of country guitar, strings, and Zauner’s familiar lo-fi voice.
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 got hip-hop inspiration over it, as well as an omnipresent and sensual synth. 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 the same energy back. With its bellowing synth chords, dark horns, and something else deep yet sweet in between, it may be the “sad apex” of the album.
The last single released from the album is “Savage Good Boy,” which Zauner worked on to produce with Alex G. Zauner said of the song, “”Savage Good Boy” is about, maybe, the seedy underbelly of experiencing too much joy, and what excessive greed looks like when you’re constantly rationalizing your personal joy over others.”
“In Hell” is a pessimistic track, but somehow sweet sounding very meditative tones, optimistic-feeling guitar, and pop 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.”
“Tactics” is a string based track, and evokes imagery of all things orchestral, sad and melancholy. Zauner said of the track, ““I was particularly thinking about the Randy Newman song “Marie,” where all the choruses get really wrapped up in this beautiful string moment.” 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 ten tracks of Jubilee tell a story like that of a pop art person experiencing life’s highs and lows in their world of color, 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. And I have to wholeheartedly say, that I love it too.
Check out Japanese Breakfast’s new album Jubilee! Be sure to follow Groove Girl & DJ T-Roy’s freeform show PB & Jams on Instagram! Stay tuned for the fall 2021 show schedule so you can hear Groove Girl and T-Roy debate the latest alt and indie tracks for another year of music on the air waves!