Music

As Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner made two albums exploring deep loss. Now she steps forward with Jubilee – a richly textured celebration of the music of her adolescence. By Shaad D’Souza.

Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee

The cover art of Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee.
Credit: Supplied

Michelle Zauner is ready to feel something different. For her third album as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, the Korean-born American stands tall and surveys her life and art, preparing to mine it for something other than the insurmountable, totalising grief that inspired her first two albums: “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers, to captivate every heart?” she asks early on. “Projecting your vision to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word?”

Thirty-two-year-old Zauner has built a career on grim internal excavations, and through talent, drive and ingenuity found herself with not just career sustainability – the baseline goal for many an indie musician – but a fan base who saw their own experiences reflected in her vignettes. Now she is a bona-fide star, with a billboard in Times Square and a book on the New York Times bestseller list.

Her metatextual question serves as the tumbling, anthemic hook of the album opener “Paprika”, which suggests Zauner hasn’t lost the deft touch that made her first two records – 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet – so successful. In fact, in its perspective shift from the commonalities of grief to the profoundly singular experience of performing and connecting with an audience, “Paprika” cannily foreshadows the scope of Jubilee. While this is still undoubtedly an autobiographical work – this time about success, marriage and art, among other things – Jubilee is also a celebration of music itself. An ever-shifting melange of 2000s styles and textures held together remarkably well by Zauner’s distinctive voice and songwriting, it’s a richly saturated piece that makes Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet seem almost pallid in comparison.

Perhaps that’s by design: Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet were therapeutic outlets for Zauner in the immediate wake of her mother’s death. Across those albums she grappled with watching a loved one fade away, as well as the impact it had on her own world – the shrinking, greying effect that took hold when she moved back to her home town of Eugene, Oregon, to act as her mother’s carer. She gravitated towards spectral, shimmering dream pop to translate those experiences as it’s a form that lends itself to heartbreak and can express a complex wash of feelings.

After releasing those albums in quick succession, Zauner turned her attention to writing. She began work on Crying in H Mart, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, food and her Korean heritage, which builds on a viral essay Zauner wrote for The New Yorker. It was released earlier this year and immediately entered the Times bestseller list. For the entirety of her artistic career as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has been known as a writer with a fixation on death. Jubilee, with its rolling horns and video game synths, strikes as a record by someone out to prove they have far more to offer than tearjerkers.   

Zauner has said she wanted to make a classic “third album” and, true to that ambition, Jubilee is intellectually redolent of recent third records that expand the purview of their creator’s universe: Perfume Genius’ Too Bright, Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III. But in its distinctive genre-hopping, it also feels part of a fast-emerging album type one might describe as a “playlist album”: an aesthetically or thematically unified album that abruptly switches styles in the way that a themed, shuffled playlist might. Notable examples of this genre would be Taylor Swift’s Lover, which approximates sounds popularised by Mazzy Star, Haim, Chromatics, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Rey and more in quick succession or, more recently, Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR, which achieves a similar effect with the styles of Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers and Paramore.

The “playlist album” is a hard feat to pull off in indie music, in large part because it’s something of an auteur genre that rewards singularity in a way mainstream pop, try as it might, rarely does. Jubilee might be the first big-budget indie album to pull off the style without feeling like a grab bag. Across the album’s 10 tracks, Zauner draws from the vernacular of millennial comfort music, in essence painting a history of (mostly) 2000s music across a single disc.

“Paprika”, with its rolling horns and marching band jubilance, recalls the early work of Francophile indie outfit Beirut, while the chipper synths of “Slide Tackle”  recall their late period; “Kokomo, IN” is a lovely, lush homage to The Beatles’ “In My Life”, with the addition of the kind of pop strings favoured by indie troubadour Jens Lekman; “Savage Good Boy” touches on both the helium-voiced perversions of its co-producer Alex G and the lived-in pop of Vampire Weekend; the spacious, meditative synth ballad “Posing in Bondage”, about the complexities and constraints of marriage, recalls the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Soft Shock”, perhaps a nod to Zauner’s teenage hero, Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O.

In Crying in H Mart, Zauner describes indie music as having saved her life in her teenage years; Jubilee is her love letter to the form in its richest variants, an attempt to amplify the life-affirming qualities that she found so captivating back then.

At all times, Zauner’s distinctive writing keeps anonymity at bay. Sometimes she is clear-cut and sweet – “Sometimes, I can’t shake the awful feeling I’m missing something I can’t place – is that you?” she asks on “Kokomo, IN” – and at others she is gorgeously impressionistic, describing her young self as “soft as a dune”, painting the gut-wrenching experience of having to dole out her mother’s palliative medications as “snow[ing] you in with hydrocodone”. She still sounds like herself, her voice still a little rangy and her writing a little TMI.

Pop has become a flattening force in indie over the past few years. There is the implication that, at some point, successful artists, especially female artists, will go mainstream and work with a mainstream pop producer, as have artists such as Tegan and Sara and St. Vincent. But even as her music becomes more high-budget, Zauner retains the workmanlike seams inherent to indie, the whorls and ridges that make an artist. To scrub away detail is tempting – Zauner’s Dead Oceans label-mate Phoebe Bridgers, now a Grammy-nominated star, rode to success on the back of an ultra-streamable sound scrubbed of grit that masquerades as transgressive. That Zauner didn’t do the same is admirable and heartening. If sometimes it feels a little unwieldy, at least Jubilee is a product of unique taste, as opposed to chilly, zeitgeist-grabbing flaneurism.

So how does it feel to stand onstage and hear your own words screamed back at you, to feel a connection with thousands? If Jubilee is any indication, it’s a thrilling, heartening thing – an experience of brightness, warmth and joy. Zauner says as much in “Paprika”, answering her own question with an exhilarating, clear-eyed whoop. It’s the carefree exclamation of someone finally planting her feet on firm ground after years caught in the void between love and loss: “Ah, it’s a rush!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Surging to joy".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.