Featured Image: @JBREKKIE
You are a rich, attractive man. While you’d be handsome without wealth, you know people see the cash on your face. And in this bunker, they’d be grateful for it: you’ve created a haven for the apocalypse; an ornate dinner set, tasteful baroque furniture and subtle club lighting. You nod to yourself; concrete and velvet is chic.
And the delicate, pale woman sitting across from you – she was quite the find. She looks like a dream, and you told her this when you picked her up outside the ransacked supermarket. You remember her thin-lipped smile and the crinkle of smashed glass as she delicately climbed into your car, like the chimes of tiny bells as you whisked her away.
But there is something strange about this young woman. Sometimes you catch her staring at you hungrily. At dinner that night, she sinks her fangs into your neck. Maybe you misjudged things.
This is the music video that Michelle Zauner (aka Japanese Breakfast) directed for her seventh track on her new album Jubilee. The song, with its paradoxical title ‘Savage Good Boy’, gets right to the heart of the dark humour which powers the album.
Zauner sings, “I will wine and dine you in the hollows / On a surplus of freeze-dried food,” the guitar and vocal lines blending in a brittle, hysterical riff as flashing teeth rip flesh. The melody rings out, discordant and shrill, as the camera pans above the corpse and an apathetic Zauner. Blood and crystal glitter. The experience is sweetly soporific and gently unsettling.
The lyrics are ceaselessly hungry: “I want to make the money ‘til there’s no more to be made.” It’s capitalism in its final stages and the city is about to go underwater, a familiar apocalypse. But Zauner ekes it out with comic flair, returning to an 80s/sci-fi aesthetic she’s referenced many times in her music. It’s Stranger Things meets Bladerunner. The world is over yet we are already nostalgic – warm fuzzy feels as the billionaire bleeds out.
‘Save Good Boy’ stands apart on a deeply personal album, simply because it comes from a tangibly fictional conceit. Perhaps it signals a new direction. In interviews, Zauner has spoken about how she plans to move away from “hyper vulnerable personal unpacking” of her mother’s death towards more “technical” writing and music production. This isn’t surprising. For a long time, her artistic persona has been linked to grief. It took her around seven years to get over her mother’s absence, and she wrote a book about it based on a New Yorker essay, Crying in H Mart. In April it reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list.
But in the press surrounding Jubilee, Zauner has been quick to make a distinction: not only is she attempting to create something new, but to outdo herself. Her voice takes on a clearer, more jarring cadence. There is less of the blur between syllable and instrument you’ll find on 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and her symphonic palette has also expanded quite generously. Strings, trumpets and dance percussion herald the album’s title. But as we’re kicked towards the light, darkness clings to our feet, a lyrical and textural transmission of release from pain.
‘Paprika’ is a clear example of this balancing act. Synths glide in slow and hymn-like – more like a funeral dirge than a celebratory parade. Zauner’s voice grates slightly even as a drumbeat builds and the song begins to march. We get layered, discordant images such as our narrator at the centre of “thousands of […] unwinding fishing lines” as the “floodgates” open. This is the multiplicity of the creative moment on stage: those lines become thousands of “strangers […] linger[ing] on every word.” The tempo picks up, and violins crack a smile. A steel drum enters beneath trumpets ringing her ode to the perfect listener.
‘Be Sweet’ bounces on candyfloss clouds backed by a tight disco beat. Zauner’s voice blooms like a choir, expounding on the need to “believe in something.” There’s a size and slickness here – a gooey-eyed love for the enormity of pop’s instrumental arsenal, showing that Japanese Breakfast has moved away from the “insular environment […] of a bedroom studio” to something “confident and bombastic”. ‘Kokomo, IN’ also fizzes with ambition. With violins and twanging guitar, the song crafts a poignant slow dance matched by the lyrics: “These days I can't shake the awful feeling / I'm missing something I can't place, is that you?” Perhaps it’s a feeling akin to déjà vu, but listening to ‘Kokomo, IN’ is like the buzz of a second margarita undercut by the feeling that you have left the oven on.
While we swing upward on effervescent grooves and grand orchestral passages, the record always reminds us there is conflict at the tail end. Take, for instance, ‘Side Tackle’, on which Zauner sings, “there is an ache I meet / To desire living”, more like a mediation between grief and acceptance than a raucous celebration. It is an effort to move away from “obsessing in the dark.” And when we slide into ‘In Hell’ we are met the disturbance of grief and codeine mixing in a woozy vocal melody. The drums are the only thing that keeps it from tipping into the vacuous and un-mitigating.
‘Posing In Bondage’ is the sensual, slower twin of ‘Be Sweet’ where a plea for affection (“be sweet to me”) is now one of more basic sex or kindness (“be good to me”). It’s a seductive interlude before the rockier, starker ‘Sit’. Here, Zauner’s voice returns to the lilting hesitancy of Soft Sounds, with one word merging into the next.
The ambitious instrumental palette is never more obvious than in ‘Tactics’ which opens with melancholy strings. The backbeat and vocals feed this escapism. “Disfigure the truth,” Zauner croons over a lullaby piano, “dose up on fiction.” The creative experience is no longer joyful like in ‘Paprika.’ It is a necessary process of making the world palatable.
The final track considers the time it takes to get back to normal. ‘Posing For Cars’ is meditative and intransient. The track keeps expanding all the way into an electric guitar, chiming cymbals, then an immense wall of fuzz, just a single note fermenting. Jubilee is certainly a shift from the subtler, hazier sound we hear in earlier Japanese Breakfast projects. This album is about approaching multiplicity, in grief, in creativity and in happiness; it continually flits between the macabre and the jubilant.