Michelle Zauner has been busy. Despite her notoriety as both the brains and music behind indie outfit Japanese Breakfast, she took a stab at the writing world in 2021. The month of April saw the publication of her memoir titled “Crying in H Mart”. The work immediately garnered positive reception and debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times’ Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller List.
But the memoir would not be all. Earlier this month, news broke that her book was also being transformed into a movie, one that would be scored by none other than Japanese Breakfast themselves. “Crying in H Mart” revolves around Zauner’s relationship with her mother, who died in 2016 after a battle with cancer. Major themes from the book are also laced into the fabric of the first two full length albums from Japanese Breakfast, 2016’s “Psychopomp” and 2017’s “Soft Sounds from Another Planet”.
Zauner was intent on moving in a different direction for “Jubilee”, the band’s third LP, which was officially released on June 4th. “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow up to be about joy”, she stated in an interview prior to the release of the record. While there are still clear instances of sadness and pain across the album, “Jubilee” does manage to be the brightest release from Japanese Breakfast yet. Zauner’s songwriting manifests in grander sonic creations than ever before as more instruments, most notably a horn section, join the party. The ten tracks that comprise “Jubilee” are a successful audio experiment in lavish indie-pop that reward any ear giving the album multiple listens.
The aforementioned horns make an immediate entrance on album opener Paprika, providing a triumphant flourish that help punctuate Zauner’s vocals as she outlines her experience of strange sensations following lucidity from a dream. It’s a terrific start to a record that doesn’t slow down with second track Be Sweet, also the lead single for the LP. Though the song is months old at this point, it is by no means stale. Rather, it shines as the catchiest track on the project, urging the audience to sing along joyously to its chorus while a driving and somewhat sinister instrumental is reinforced by eerie backing vocals and a jangly guitar line.
Despite the high energy of these opening tracks, much of the cuts that follow are more in line with the slower material of Japanese Breakfast’s earlier days. The album’s middle section rides a decidedly chiller vibe with instrumentals filled with fuzzy reverb (see Posing in Bondage and Sit). Orchestral sounds are also utilized tastefully across the record, most notably on standout track Kokomo, IN, a lazy dream-pop ballad where delicate strings swell poignantly into a forlorn chorus.
On the lyrical end, Michelle Zauner proves to be in top form across “Jubilee”. Some songs rely on their strength of concept, such as Slide Tackle where the title is also used as a central metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges. Or Savage Good Boy, where playful pitched-up vocals accentuate a satire of greedy capitalist culture. However, the most powerful lyrical moments of the record are heavy one-liners, which is comfortable territory for Zauner. The chorus of In Hell describes the titular setting as an impossible union after expectation with the line “Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t see you again”. The bends and lilts in the vocals really force listeners to feel the gravity of the statement. Sure, the emotion of joy can be found in pockets of this record, but Japanese Breakfast truly thrive while wrapped in an ambiance of melancholy, which they haven’t shed entirely on “Jubilee”.
There’s also an exceptional poetic moment shared across both “Jubilee” and “Crying in H Mart”. During a climactic moment of Posing in Bondage, Zauner declares that “The world divides into two people/Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to”. The line can also be found in a particularly heartbreaking moment of her memoir, as she grapples with a profound sense of loss.
“Jubilee” is but a brief snapshot of current life for Zauner, but she absolutely demonstrates her continued musical maturity across the project’s ten tracks and 37 minutes. Japanese Breakfast will tour in support of the record this summer, playing a full five shows at Union Transfer in early August.