Michelle Zauner is no stranger to facing grief head-on with exhilaration. The circumstances of his life surrounding the release of his first two albums under the name Japanese Breakfast are well documented: his debut Psychopomp was recorded following her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2014, and her explorations of trauma and melancholy have extended to her sci-fi-inspired follow-up, Sweet sounds from another planet.
Yet Zauner always avoided any desire to linger in pain, instead catapulting himself into the possibility of imaginary futures. In live shows of Sweet sounds“Machinist,” which portrays the romance between a woman and a computer, Zauner leaps onto stage to the disco beat of the song, swaying between the hands of audience members and the settings of his drum machine. “Do you trust me? / Can you feel it?” she sings into an Auto-Tuned Microphone, the only real clue she sings about a robot in love.
As if the title wasn’t obvious enough, Japanese Breakfast’s latest LP Jubilee is the project’s most ecstatic album to date, though a quick glance at the lyrics will tell you that Zauner hasn’t finished digging into the thornier aspects of addiction, devotion, and desire. The debut single “Be Sweet”, written with Jack Tatum of indie-pop group Wild Nothing, evolves the Studio 54 influence of “Machinist” into an ’80s synth bliss, turning Zauner’s imploring hook into a scream of rallying: “Be nice to me, baby / I want to believe in you / I want to believe!” She echoes the sentiment on “Slide Tackle,” an airy futuristic track that surprises her struggling with PTSD. The “Paprika” opener is euphoria in a bottle, and such a good distillation that you will never be able to understand why some musicians risk their lives and bodies to perform on stage. “How does it feel to stand at the peak of your powers / To captivate all hearts?” she asks, before answering her own question with a burst of trumpets: “It’s a rush!”
Zauner continues with the sci-fi tales she first featured on Sweet sounds and weaves them together with more mundane experiences, and it’s not always easy – or particularly useful – to decipher who’s what on each song. “Savage Good Boy” plays a billionaire who plans to move his family to an underwater complex, where his wife can continue her household chores and give birth to children; “Sit” translates oral sex into binary code and sees the act of seduction as “a looping chase sequence”. But while these metaphors are full of creativity and dry humor, Zauner’s writing shines when it proves she doesn’t need it as a crutch. Take “In Hell,” which meticulously recounts the last days of a loved one’s life in hospital (“Face to face and my hands, I snowed you / With hydrocodone”), set to the kind of jangly indie rock that Zauner grew up in the Pacific Northwest. It is in these moments, when Zauner’s proclamations of sentiment are fully realized in the music itself, that Jubilee is at its best.