Japanese Breakfast Takes a Turn Toward the Bright(er) Side on ‘Jubilee’: Album Review

It wasn’t all that long ago that Michelle Zauner, the creative force behind shoegaze-pop act Japanese Breakfast, was singing about the idea of becoming “Jimmy Fallon big.” The track from 2017’s “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” may have seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but Zauner’s tongue-in-cheek lyric came full circle in March when the band hit “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to make Japanese Breakfast’s late-night television debut.

The singer follow in April with a memoir, “Crying in H Mart” — largely focused on Zauner’s fraught relationship with her late mother — that debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The memoir’s subject matter is likely familiar territory for fans of Zauner’s work, as Japanese Breakfast’s first two records were loaded big guitars, moody synths, and personal meditations on anguish and longing.

The release of Japanese Breakfast’s third album, by contrast, is a different kind of catharsis, presenting Zauner’s best and most beautiful songs to date. The change is clear from the opener “Paprika,” which finds sunrise synths giving way to a bright burst of horns and Zauner’s soaring vocals as she declares, “Oh, it’s a rush!” Later, lush strings elevate the number into a march, conjuring the theme of the Satoshi Kon 2006 anime film of the same name.

Similarly, there is a tangible sense of relief and release to be found on tracks like lead single “Be Sweet” and the dark, dance-worthy vibes of centerpiece “Posing in Bondage.” It also shows up in quieter ways, as on the serenely sweet “Kokomo, IN.” Taking a page from the Beatles, Zauner pairs an orchestral arrangement with a rich, yearning guitar line as she muses on the tender loneliness of teenage love.

Part of the transformation on display with “Jubilee” also stems from Zauner’s choice to compose the album’s ten songs (which includes a few reworkings of earlier material) on the piano for the first time. Working with bandmate Craig Hendrix, Zauner also oversaw a small orchestra of horn and string players, adding an entirely new dimension to the scope of Japanese Breakfast’s sound.

Not surprisingly, things turn a bit darker on “In Hell,” which juxtaposes bleak subject matter with a downright plucky synth line. “Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t have you / Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t see you again,” she sings.

Indeed, the benefit of perspective is a key facet to what makes “Jubilee” tick. It takes all the things that have always served Japanese Breakfast well — Zauner’s awareness of her voice and how best to deploy it, her knack for narrative and story as well as great hooks — and offers them fresh soil in which to grow.

 

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