When a song no older than the announcement of yet another lockdown postponement breaks into your ‘top 10 most listened’ list, pushing James Bay and MF DOOM out of its way, that must be saying something.
Now that Michelle Zauner, or Japanese Breakfast, managed to repeat the same musical allure with both singles – ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Savage Good Boy’ – that she breadcrumbed before releasing her full third album, the hype couldn’t be more real.
After listening to her highly anticipated ‘Jubilee’ – which was recorded in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic – I came to the conclusion that Michelle’s music is hard to pin-point.
Considering that a lot of great bands and artists (Kings of Leon, Plan B and Kings of Leon, again) tend to stick to their original formula, eventually drifting away into the oblivion (hey, Mika, Blink-182) with their loyal, diehard fanbases, that versatility can only be a good thing.
For those of you who never had a chance to enjoy some Japanese Breakfast yourself, imagine how all the great mid-2000s indie/pop bands, such as Death Cab for Cutie, or those who inspired them like Kate Bush (one of Zauner’s biggest influences, apparently), would sound today.
Turn on ‘The Body is a Blade’ from her previous EP ‘Soft Sounds from Another Planet’ (2017) and you can even hear some modernised Kurt Cobain in there.
What I’m trying to say is that, so far, Japanese Breakfast has produced two personal, full-length love letters to the artists who formed and influenced her direction.
You could say that Japanese Breakfast is a treasure trove full of indie-pop memorabilia that never stops shapeshifting – whether you like it or not.
Jubilee, a ten-song record, then, is a better-than-ever return of the sounds of Michelle and co. that most of us indie heads have been anticipating even before the pandemic.
The first thing that captures the ear is the incredible, almost magical album-opener ‘Paprika’, with its technical side surpassing everything that I previously heard from JB.
It’s tender, euphoric and unusually optimistic, sending listeners to shiver-ville, or to a Beirut binge.
Although it’s a song about what it’s like to be a musician at the height of your power, at the same time questioning it (“I opened the floodgates / And found no water, no current, no river, no rush”), you could easily save Paprika for the darker, lonelier days to remind yourself how elevating being in love is (“Oh, it’s a rush!”).
Learning that for the past few years Michelle has been studying music theory and piano, for the first time helping her bandmate and co-producer Craig Hendrix to compose string and horn arrangements, this raises Paprika and Jubilee to a whole different level.
Just imagine what wonders she could do with a whole orchestra.
One of my fears, that closing track ‘Posing For Cars’ wouldn’t be able to match one of the best album openers of this year, then proved to be true.
Even if the composition here is on par with Paprika, the catharsis that Posing For Cars tries to pull off only works when you listen to the album from start to finish.
The same can also be said about the album’s midway track ‘Posing In Bondage’ with its fuzzy, semi-cyberpunk first-half feeling. It’s classic Japanese Breakfast, through and through.
While they fit like a glove in the general flow of Jubilee, neither of these songs work as singles.
This brings me to ‘Savage Good Boy’, ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Slide Tackle’; some of my favourites from Jubilee that jazzed their way into my daily ‘must-listen-or-else’ playlist.
At this point Savage Good Boy, a gnarly, summer-scented breather squeezed between two emotionally heavier pieces, is probably a single-track soundtrack of at least three dreams I have every night.
With the exception of Slide Tackle, the album’s fourth track, each of these songs were released individually, raising the temperature one by one.
If you asked me why I’m still bangin’ out both Savage Good Boy and Be Sweet months after they were released, I feel like my brain would simply fart in an attempt to find a logical explanation.
“They just click”, I would probably end up saying.
But with the addition of Slide Tackle, which continues in the same sonically fun wavelength of Be Sweet with some smooth sax in the middle and horns tying everything up nicely, I think I finally have it.
Gleeful is not an adjective that you would hear people use to describe Japanese Breakfast.
Being used to post-traumatic, grungier sounds from Michelle, it was surprising to hear how fun the band can sound when they focus their energy on something that sounds straight from Dayglow’s alley, but without losing those signature Japanese Breakfast qualities.
There’s also ‘Sit’, a razor-sharp, thumping shoegaze track, laced with some heavy bass.
While far from my favourite track, it works superbly as a way for Michelle to flex those songwriting skills.
Sit, dear readers, translates oral sex into a binary code (“Hear my name in your mouth and I’m done for / Say to sit on your face in 0s and 1s”), continuing the sci-fi narratives that Zauner first experimented with on her last record.
What’s an album if it doesn’t include at least one binary erotica, right?
After listening to Jubilee, I cannot think of any other way to describe the progression of Japanese Breakfast without comparing it with the traditional character arc of basically every anime.
The band’s 2016 debut album ‘Psychopomp’ channelled Zauner’s grief, giving birth to what we now recognize only as Japanese Breakfast, putting this shoegaze-y, C86 band-evoking indie gem on the map.
2017’s ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’ is that part in anime where anti-heroes (like Vegeta or Zuko) drift off to remote parts of the world to do some intense soul-searching.
After they return, you get Jubilee; a protagonist at the height of their power.
This ambitious and intimate LP is proof that Michelle is finally ready to move on, resulting in her most playful album to date.
Of course, there are some overblown arrangements here and there – bits that work best in concert with the rest of the album as the sum of its parts.
But that’s the natural by-product of stepping out of your comfort zone. And if that’s the price of making your best record to date, I wish more musicians would follow in Japanese Breakfast’s lead.
Feature Image Credit: Japanese Breakfast Twitter, Dead Oceans Records