Japanese Breakfast Dances Through Grief on ‘Jubilee’

Michelle Zauner is no stranger to facing grief head-on with elation. The circumstances of her life surrounding the release of her first two albums as Japanese Breakfast are well-documented: her debut Psychopomp was recorded in the wake of her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2014, and her explorations of trauma and melancholy extended onto its science fiction-inspired follow-up, Soft Sounds from Another Planet.

Yet Zauner has always sidestepped any desire to linger within pain, instead catapulting towards the possibility of imaginary futures. In live performances of Soft Sounds’ “Machinist,” which depicts the romance between a woman and a computer, Zauner bounds around onstage to the song’s disco beat, flitting back-and-forth between grasping audience members’ hands and fiddling with the settings on her drum machine. “Do you trust me?/Can you feel it?” she sings into an Auto-Tuned microphone, the only real hint that she’s singing about a robot in love.

As if the title weren’t obvious enough, Japanese Breakfast’s latest LP Jubilee is the project’s most ecstatic-sounding album to date, although one glance at the lyrics will tell you that Zauner isn’t done excavating the thornier aspects of dependency, devotion, and longing. Lead single “Be Sweet,” written with Jack Tatum of indie-pop group Wild Nothing, evolves the Studio 54 influence of “Machinist” into Eighties synth bliss, turning Zauner’s pleading hook into a rallying cry: “Be sweet to me, baby/I wanna believe in you/I wanna beliiieeeeeve!” She echoes the sentiment on “Slide Tackle,” a breezy future-funk track that catches her grappling with PTSD. Opener “Paprika” is euphoria in a bottle, and as good of a distillation as you’ll ever get to why certain musicians risk life and limb to perform onstage. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers/To captivate every heart?” she asks, before answering her own question in a burst of trumpets: “It’s a rush!”

Zauner continues with the sci-fi narratives she first presented on Soft Sounds and weaves them together with more mundane experiences, and it’s not always easy – or particularly useful – to decipher which is which on each song. “Savage Good Boy” embodies a billionaire with plans to move his family to an underwater compound, where his wife can continue on with her domestic tasks and birth them children; “Sit” translates oral sex into binary code, and envisions the act of seduction as “a chase sequence on loop.” But while these metaphors carry plenty of creativity and dry humor, Zauner’s writing shines when she proves she doesn’t need them as a crutch. Take “In Hell,” which meticulously chronicles the last days of a loved one’s life in the hospital (“Face to face and at my hands I snowed you in/With hydrocodone”), set to the kind of jangly indie rock that Zauner grew up with in the Pacific Northwest. It’s in these moments, when Zauner’s proclamations of feeling are fully realized into the music itself, that Jubilee is at its best.