Album Review: Japanese Breakfast- “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”

By Kate Reeve, Featured Photo via Stereogum

Japanese Breakfast’s newest release, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, slinks into the gaps left from their previous album. Michelle Zauner’s career began in Philadelphia, as the lead vocalist and guitarist of lo-fi basement band Little Big League. After her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Zauner moved home to Oregon and began writing the predecessor to Soft Sounds, Psychopomp. I saw Japanese Breakfast perform in Montreal shortly after the album was released in 2016 and I was struck by the aching, uncensored nakedness of her performance. She ripped through the room in a floppy hat, carving space for herself in an environment dominated by grungy white boys in short pants. Zauner is a talented songwriter and a soaring musician, but what is most compelling about her work is its unforgiving honesty and its sharp edgesa self-portrait carved in a shiny oak table. In her foreword to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Eileen Myles describes the novel as a “ghastly, cunty exegesis.” Like Kraus’s writing, Soft Sounds is likewise a ghastly, cunty exegesis of a staccato period in Zauner’s long career of making the best kind of noise.

Writing just over a year after her mother’s death, Zauner explores the long term impact of intimacy with mortality. She writes about feeling closed off and isolated like a machine, left standing and aching with palms open. Though in that same breath, there is an edge of triumph. Zauner seems to celebrate in quiet brutality her very survival. In fact, the big scores on this record, such as the complex “Machinist”, almost call for grand, cinematic moments to run alongside, or at the very least a joyous winning montage.

Listening to tracks such as “Diving Women” or “The Body is a Blade,” the poetry of the lyrics can slide away under the overall sound. Zauner’s vocals, though they take centre stage, blend so smoothly with the music that it can be difficult to separate her words from the overall feel of the song. However, listen more closely and you’re stricken. In “Till Death” for example, she lists off her fears of “PTSD, anxiety, genetic disease, [and] Thanatophobia,” just after an ode to a dedicated partner whom she feels she doesn’t deserve. In what is quickly becoming a hallmark of her work, Soft Sounds presents deeper emotional trauma in bright, sweet tones. This album does make some serious leaps, moving from an almost techno-like, danceable sound in “Machinist” to familiar lo-fi tunes in “Boyish,” but I would argue that this is a testament to Zauner’s creative range. Longtime fans of Zauner will enjoy hearing more from her, while newer listeners can appreciate the continued relevance of the artist’s work.

Soft Sounds from Another Planet is a gorgeous, ethereal album that speaks to the complexities inherent in all of us. Zauner takes us through her experiences in a series of dynamic, generous tracks. Listeners are rewarded with both interesting sound and compelling, though occasionally heart tearing, lyrics. This album takes time to appreciate on its deepest levels, but the sound alone is enough to keep up engagement until listeners can decode the lyrics. Japanese Breakfast will play at the Garrison on October 7 at 8 P.M.. Go, enjoy the sweep.

 

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