Bursting with life, love and lush instrumentation, Japanese Breakfast fill their vibrant third LP with jubilant indie pop, dark alt-rock ballads, and plenty of heart.
Jubilee, the latest release by Japanese Breakfast, the project of American musician Michelle Zauner, could well be called an emotional rollercoaster – if rollercoasters only went downhill, that is. The album takes us from the infectious openheartedness of the buoyant lead single ‘Be Sweet’, to the devastating loneliness of final track ‘Posing for Cars’, which finds Zauner ‘just a hollow root pushing through; just the empty space inside the room’.
While the album gets progressively sadder with each track, Zauner’s endearing lust for life and love remains consistent. Whether she is mourning the loss of her beloved dog on ‘In Hell’ or longing for a meaningful relationship on the dark, sobering ‘Posing in Bondage’, she sings with a sincere belief in the value of love and connection. Her vocals carry a certain mature innocence, sounding bright and optimistic but never naïve or superficial. When she pleads, ‘be sweet to me, baby, / I wanna believe in you, I wanna believe in something’, it comes across not as mere saccharine fluff but an expression of a steadfast desire to find the good in people.
To accompany these heartfelt vocals, Zauner and her band furnish the record with rich, lustrous instrumentals, for the most part smoothing over the jagged edges that dominated their first two releases. The first half of Jubilee bubbles and sparkles with hope and possibilities, while the second half swells under the pain of loss and isolation.
But right from the glimmering, bejewelled opener ‘Paprika’, Zauner hints that the album will be far from light and breezy, her lyrics exploring the hollowness of success and celebrity: ‘I want my offering to woo, to calm, to clear, to solve / but the only offering that comes, / it calls, it screams, there’s nothing here.’ But with these doubts hidden under an unabashedly indulgent instrumental, ‘Paprika’ opens the album with irresistible charm and warmth.
Zauner strips back the maximalist instrumentation considerably on ‘Kokomo, IN’, a raw-edged piece of indie pop which falls somewhere between the influences of Belle and Sebastian and Wilco, and ‘Slide Tackle’, a sombre dance groove that introduces the first notes of real anxiety to the album. A molten saxophone solo and the ambient glow of synthesisers keep this evocative track from feeling bleak, before we are thrust into full darkness on ‘Posing for Bondage’.
Only ‘Savage Good Boy’ provides a light-hearted break from the emotional intensity of the LP’s second half. Less distinctive sonically than most of the other tracks, the song’s strength lies instead in its lyrics lampooning the selfish hedonism of the idle rich: ‘I’ve got a pension and six condos, / billion dollar bunker for two / and when the city’s underwater / I will wine and dine you in the hollows / on a surplus of freeze dried food.’ Although it’s the only overtly political track, it too feeds into the album’s themes of interconnection, condemning individualism and self-preservation.
Otherwise the melancholy persists as we approach the end of the track list. While ‘In Hell’ pairs its heart-breaking lyrics with a whimsical, bubbly instrumental, the gentle sway of ‘Tactics’ is sad in the traditional way, the beautiful, silken lullaby kind of way.
‘Sit’ and ‘Posing for Cars’ both delve into the alt-rock sound of Japanese Breakfast’s first album Psychopomp. While the first of these two songs is one of the record’s more forgettable moments, the latter is a worthy closer, its clear, dark guitar sound reminiscent of the softer tracks on Radiohead’s The Bends. An expansive, mournful waltz, the track makes for a magnificent, slow-building climax to the album.
Zauner’s remark on this closing song, ‘I’m just a woman with a loneliness, / I’m just a woman with needs,’ neatly summarises the album’s basic premise: we are each made better and happier by interconnection; none of us is better alone. We need each other.
Listen to Jubilee: