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Japanese Breakfast’s ‘Jubilee’ is happy music for sad people

| Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Michelle Zauner, the frontwoman for indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, has outright stated that their third studio album is one about joy. And with a name like “Jubilee,” perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. A quick listen through the record only underscores the obvious, as nearly every track is a bonafide banger — even the songs that you can’t dance to seem reflected through rose-colored glasses.

But what nonetheless makes “Jubilee” such a shock (aside from the fact that, at least so far, it stands as my favorite album of the year) is that Zauner’s previous work would better be described as “through a glass darkly.” In 2014, her mother died of cancer; in 2016, she released her first album. Given the specificity with which Zauner can reconstruct feelings of uncertainty and grief, it’s no wonder many people have mistaken Japanese Breakfast for a one-woman show. In fact, she preceded “Jubilee” with the release of a memoir, “Crying in H-Mart,” which (due to my illiteracy) I have not read. But if the New Yorker essay upon which it expands is any indication, it’s surely her most piercing and personal work yet.

And so a Japanese Breakfast album about joy is more than just a dance party. It isn’t a celebration of sunny days so much as it’s a testament to sheer conviction, to the resolve that is required to overcome the rainy ones. Zauner intuitively understands that joy without sorrow is empty, and the melancholy that lingers below the surface of this record makes its most exultant moments fly only higher. “Jubilee,” after all, is the bittersweet realization that joy and despair are equals.

The album begins on a high note (literally, during the chorus) with “Paprika,” inspired by the 2006 anime by Satoshi Kon. Here, Zauner salutes the joy of making music — more broadly, of being an artist. “How’s it feel to be at the center of magic / To linger in tones and words?” Zauner ponders. “Projecting your visions to strangers / Who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word?”

To which she cheers, “Oh, it’s a rush!”

Horns swell Sufjan Stevens-style, but there also lie hints of something sadder. “I opened the floodgates and found / No water, no current, no river, no rush.” Later: “But alone, it feels like dying / All alone, I feel so much.” Making art is great, but making great art can be crushing. What if I have nothing to say? And what if my work can’t console me? Most of the time, it probably won’t. But when it does: “Oh, it’s a rush!”

The song ends.

Next up is “Be Sweet,” an indie pop anthem that throws it back to the ’80s. Zauner sings to an unknown lover (“So come and get your woman / Pacify her rage”), pleading with them to give her something, anything, that she can use to forgive them. “Slide Tackle,” meanwhile, employs a scintillating sax to explore how we often have to wrestle our thoughts into submission, and “Savage Good Boy” — maybe the most fun song on a record with some tough competition — lampoons the lifestyles of billionaires by writing directly from their perspective.

But in between the bangers are slower, more pensive works, essential to the album’s anatomy and which grow on me with each listen. “Kokomo, IN” is an ode to that particular brand of Midwestern adolescence, while “Tactics” features a beautiful string symphony as Zauner recalls the complicated melancholy of ending an unhealthy relationship. “In Hell,” about having to put down a beloved dog, disguises its aching lyrics with rousing production, while “Sit” is the unfortunate chink in “Jubilee”’s armor, a decent song washed out by its superior surroundings.

“Posing in Bondage,” the fifth song, mirrors the tenth (and final) track, “Posing for Cars.” They’re both about monogamy, but not suffocation; instead, they’re about the simple bliss of having a person, one person, in your life. “Posing for Cars” ends the album with a sprawling, three-minute guitar solo — it’s like watching the credits roll after a really good movie, the lights still down and the audience still rapt in their attention.

So be kind: Please rewind. 


Album: “Jubilee”

Artist: Japanese Breakfast

Label: Dead Oceans

Favorite songs: “Paprika,” “Kokomo, IN,” “Savage Good Boy,” “Tactics,” “Posing for Cars”

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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