Last year, Michelle Zauner released her debut album under the Japanese Breakfast moniker Psychopomp. Psychopomp was a winning lo-fi dream pop album that felt grand despite its intimate scale. Focused on personal narratives, specifically the death of Zauner’s mother from a rare form of cancer as well as Zauner’s analysis of sex and its requisite desires, it featured ebullient songs like “Everybody Wants to Love You” whose simple first verse goes: “Can I get your number / Can I get you into bed? / When we wake up in the morning / Can you give me lots of head?” This simple pick up line is funny its directness but takes on a new kind of power when sung by a South Korean woman fronting an indie rock band. With Japanese Breakfast, Zauner challenges conventional representation and identification within an indie context through the very agency that drives her songwriting and perspective.
Japanese Breakfast’s follow up to Psychopomp is Soft Sounds From Another Planet—an album that greatly improves on the first record while still maintaining the elements that made her work so magnetic before. In pre-release interviews, Zauner has called Soft Sounds something of a failed concept album. She started writing the songs with a robot-heavy narrative in mind in order to distance herself from personalized songwriting, but as she went on in the process, the new work felt phony, so she reframed and went back to the personal.
There still is this altered, alien sense to Soft Sounds that removes it from being a simple, traditional indie album. Each song is couched in reverb and it features three instrumental interludes that work to build the world. But this approach isn’t especially different from Psychopomp. Although it hits one at first glance as a great title for a shoegaze/dream pop album, the word “psychopomp” denotes a creature that ushers a person from life to the afterlife. It’s as if Zauner uses these conceptual trappings in order to create a kind of mirror-world against which she analyzes her feelings and sensations from this one.
The weight of cultural and musical memory hangs over Soft Sounds as it shifts through many styles now familiar to fans of indie music—there is the late-period Sonic Youth chug in opener “Diving Woman”, the retro-future balladry of “Boyish”, and the 1980s fetishism of “The Machinist”—creating a similar effect to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest. On that record, Bradford Cox and company reframed the indie idiom into something that expressly more queer in haunting fashion. Here, Zauner creates a tapestry of womanhood that both celebrates its inherent strengths, but still leaves room for yearning and worry.
Song for song, Soft Sounds is not only a vast improvement on Psychopomp, but one of the more compulsively listenable indie albums of 2017 thus far. The album is front-loaded with Zauner’s more unique songwriting choices, like the forceful, churning “Diving Woman” that references female fishermen Jeju-do who were breadwinners of their families. Around the three-and-a-half minute mark, the song subsumes into the instrumental drive, centered around a magnetic guitar figure for another three minutes. It not only shows Zauner’s confidence in her choices but the power of the band she’s built behind her.
“The Machinist” features vocodered singing, a spoken word intro, and a ripping sax solo but still magically feels coherent. “Boyish” features one of the better choruses of the year with its offhanded but instantly classic lyrics, “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general.” With its haunting, but accessible texture, Zauner mines retro taste on “Boyish” but doesn’t succumb to empty evocation or too pat Lynchian uneasiness to get her point across. She’s able to take the open sentimentality of the time when songs by Roy Orbison were not a mere affectation, but true confession and updates that sensibility smoothly to our current time. It’s probably the best song on the record and a high point in her output.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet feels decidedly more earthbound on its second half. And while the entire album is decidedly nocturnal, the second half ditches the performative theatricality of the first half for bedroom introspection. Aside from the buzzy, Breeders-like “12 Steps” and the mid-tempo “The Body Is a Blade”, the songs on the second half are slower in tempo and dreamier in quality. “Jimmy Fallon Big!”, “Till Death”, and “This House” are winsome and barely-there. Zauner’s voice, a dynamic and dulcet instrument, creeps up on you and murmurs secrets into your ear. “This House” features some of Zauner’s most beguiling, but evocative lyrics. She communicates desire with couplets like: “Maybe it’s all the drinks you’re buying / I was feeling like a kid / Spying on hidden porn store cameras / Waiting on your graveyard shift.”
Michelle Zauner conjures the macro in the micro. Her richly observed songs convey intimate details and observations that conjure the immensity of concepts like love, sex, and desire. As the reach of Japanese Breakfast’s technique has grown—from its band-driven playing to its tight arrangements, and richer songwriting—Zauner seems to have found a better way inside herself and, thus, a better way inside of us too.
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