Japanese Breakfast - Soft Sounds From Another Planet

by Steve Ricciutti Rating:10 Release Date:2017-07-14

Japanese Breakfast, the brainchild of Michelle Zauner, is back for a second album a year after the promising debut Psychopomp. While Psychopomp dealt largely with the passing of Zauner’s mother after her battle with cancer, Soft Sounds From Another Planet explores a broader swath of topics, as well as styles, eschewing both the limitations of the former for greater musical instrumentation, as well as the lo-fi moniker for a fuller sound that doesn’t sacrifice the critical sense of intimacy her music brings. That said, this is a staggeringly beautiful album, and my favorite of the year, one in which there have already been a ton of candidates.

The whispering interludes that give way to screeching howls from the depths of her damaged soul make listening to Japanese Breakfast an exhausting experience at times. Even a year out from discovering “Jane Cum,” I still can’t passively listen to that song, despite the apparent superficiality of the lyrics. Indeed, Zauner’s voice is a transformative instrument that goes from breathless whisper to ear piercing wail inside of a sentence, pulling the helpless listener into her poignant lyrics. 

Zauner has spoken in interviews of seeking a Roy Orbison-type sensibility, and that aim is achieved on several songs, notably on the title track. “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” is a gorgeous song, as she sighs, “Striving for goodness while the cruel men win. There’s no part of me left that can feel or hear it” before a soulful slide guitar solo shows just how well she did her homework. In the impressive guitar feedback and distortion of opener “Diving Woman,” Zauner, driven by a metronomic beat that seeds the song deep into your subconscious, sings of the search for relationship balance amidst the need for individuality, indeed “having it all,” for me, you, and us. It’s spellbinding.

“Machinist” and “Road Head” exude a sex-tech vibe, the latter opening with, “You gave road head on the turnpike exit,” as it swirls off into a sweet groove, while the former, with robotic synth and dance club beat, comes across like a gender switching version of Ex Machina. Herein, Zauner employs auto-tune, a device associated with banal pop acts to make them sound better, but on “Machinist,” she bends the tool to her will, not the other way around. This is the kind of clever manipulation confident artists use; repurposing an overused pop crutch and turning it on its head for the sheer artistry of it.

Japanese Breakfast does a cover of one of Zauner’s Little Big League songs in “Boyish,” a brutal song that she’s been tweaking for years, this time as a would-be torch song. Lyrics like “I want you, and you want something more beautiful” are still crushing, but in this case, resignation and cynicism take a line like “I can’t get you off my mind, and you can’t get yours off the hostess” sound not only jaded, but also menacing. Instead of an angry girl pushing her skate-punk boyfriend to the ground, we now have a cold-blooded killer slow dancing with the scoundrel, sensually whispering in his ear while she slides a blade into his ribs.

The plaintive “Till Death,” addresses the ghosts that continue to haunt Zauner. Mournful horns are a beautiful touch to enhance the depth of her lyrics, as the song rises to a shimmering climax when Zauner sings of a litany of coping mechanisms and lingering sorrow, “Your voice in the night, sing me to sleep, soothe this insomnia, haunted dreams, stages of grief, past memories, anger, and bargaining…” pare away to reveal the essential: “Teach me to breath.” It’s the kind of crushing yet lovely experience that makes this album such an exercise in sweet, sweet pain.

“This House” is a bit of lo-fi throwback; her unaccompanied guitar providing the melodic forum for addressing the fall-out that remains after the draining day-to-day care of the terminally ill that required emotional distance to survive. She ponders if love is rooted merely in companionship and timing, and how the fact that, “I’m not the one I was then. My life was folded up in her,” likely sums up the difficulties in re-entering the world of the living. It underscores the sad reality that all relationships are nothing more than terminal engagements. The song leads into the finale “Here Come the Tubular Bells” with ringing church bells, simultaneously comforting, ominous, and utterly final.

It’s safe to say that the best artists are those that require you to meet them on their terms rather than the other way around. Instead of appealing to the safety and predictability of the unwashed masses, engorged with the empty calories of fast food arts, true visionaries push themselves until they satisfy their own muse, asking nothing of the audience save an open-mind and the appreciation of their endless artistic thirst, even if satiety never comes. Here’s hoping it never does for Michelle Zauner.

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