Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast, (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner … and her band’s), 3rd album. I’ve never got my head around is it a band or is an artist but from now on I will refer to Japanese Breakfast as ‘her’ as Zauner is clearly the driving creative force behind Japanese Breakfast.
I nearly chose her 2nd album, ‘Soft sounds from another planet’ as album of the month back in 2017. If I had, you guys would have said ‘it’s ok … but it’s nothing special’ and I probably would have never considered double dipping and choosing her again. So all in all, I am glad I didn’t and I get the chance to introduce you to Jubilee instead. Soft Sounds was a solid, consistent 12 tracks of shoegazey niceness with occasional flourishes that caught you by surprise but were soon gone. Jubilee is almost the exact opposite. On Jubilee, the flourishes are to the fore, the melancholia is still there but it’s wearing better clothes and it has adopted a few new personas. It’s a brighter, poppier, classier affair with massive mainstream chops but don’t assume that’s it’s all surface.
For those that don’t know, much of Zauner’s creative career has been defined by her relationship with and the loss of her mother. Her music was and still is deeply touched by this experience. Her book ‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is a deeply personal reflection on the pain of growing up, losing her mother and … Korean food. It made no.2 in the NY Times Non Fiction Bestseller List in April 2021. The fact that this album is called Jubilee is massive. It points the way and hints at what to expect and represents a significant metamorphosis, musically and seemingly personally for Japanese Breakfast. There is a 40 minute podcast interview with Michelle Zauner by actor Minnie Driver that I would strongly recommend listening to that explores this in much mored detail and with a very delicate touch – https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LWPCfflisFbPsQqdvRBtd – be warned, I found it very moving but I do think it frames the album beautifully.
Back to the music, Jubilee is a 10 track, 37 minute album. Thank you Michelle. Great start.
Paprika, the opening track literally marches in, heralding the opening of the album with military snares and heralding horns. It’s a proud statement of arrival, perhaps of re-birth following her loss and grieving process? Perhaps I am reading too much into that but it seems beyond coincidence.
Lyrically the album is SOOOO strong and Paprika has some of my favourite lyrics;
‘How’s it feel to be at the center of magic
To linger in tones and words?
I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush
How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers
To captivate every heart?
Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word’
Through the remaining 9 tracks Zauner introduces us to Synth-Pop, British sounding 90’s Indie (Belle and Sebastian, perhaps even Camera Obscura?), haunting stadium ready ballads and even a nod to her shoegazing back catalogue. It would have been easy for the variety of styles and influences to result in a messy, patchy album. However, this isn’t the case. There is a thread, a spine running through the tight running time and I think perfect track sequencing. For me, the thread or spine is the genuine emotion, the feels, that drive each track. I believe every word and I feel every note. The brighter, poppier uptempo tracks are some of the most emotionally and significant. That significance comes from top notch, classy song writing.
For this 1st time ever, I feel strongly enough about each song to want to walk through the nine tracks that follow Paprika one by one;
Track 2 ‘Be Sweet‘ is pure pop perfection. One of the strongest tracks by any artist this year. It was my entry point into the album when it was released back in February. It was on a long list that I created with Guy and should have been my selection when we chose tracks for each other a few months ago. It’s a bit 80’s, it’s a bit cool, it’s lyrically intelligent and I love that propulsive bass driving the track forward.
Track 3 ‘Kokomo, IN’ trades, funky 80’s pop for 90’s British indie. An acoustic guitar gives way to harsh string plucks and then to dramatic sweeping string accompaniment. It’s melodramatic, moody and most definitely ‘pretty’. It’s sits next to ‘Be Sweet’ perfectly despite it’s decade-difference in reference points.
Track 4 ‘Slide Tackle’ has been highlighted as one of the weaker tracks in a few reviews … I don’t get it. It’s one of my favourite tracks. It opens like a track from Twin Shadow’s debut album. It’s as if ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Kokomo, IN’ had a baby together … and that baby played the saxophone?
Track 5 ‘Posing in Bondage’ surprise surprise, Joey love’s the dark one about death. I think this is a beautiful track. It’s the first down-tempo, ballard (ish) track. Spending some time with the album’s lyrics reveals, surprisingly, that there are a lot less lyrics than you might think! When written down, the lyrics look sparse but when woven into the fabric of the track they take on heft, Posing In Bondage is a great example of this in action and one of my favourite tracks. The killer line for me in this track is much discussed in the Minnie Driver podcast …
‘When the world divides into two people
Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to‘
Track 6 ‘Sit’ considering that Zauner is often described as a shoegaze artist, there isn’t a lot of it on this album. The exception is ‘Sit’. It’s got a droney, fuzzy guitar that sits (pardon the pun) just behind a very non-shoegazey vocal that sits higher in the mix than you’d expect. Its not a standout track but I think mostly because it’s on such a strong album. I’m in no way offended by it and enjoy it as a simpler pleasure.
Track 7 ‘Savage Good Boy’ … and we’re back to brighter, poppier sounds and melodies. It’s a well humoured, gender-role subverting, piece of perfect pop that is hard to ignore. It show cases Zauner’s ability to tell complex stories, simply and with impact.
‘I want to make the money ’til there’s no more to be made
And we will be so wealthy I’m absolved from questioning
That all my bad behaviour was just a necessary strain
They’re the stakes in the race to win‘
It’s hard to think of catchier song about mankind driving itself into the apocalypse. If you can think of one please let me know.
Track 8 ‘Hell’ – another track that focuses on the theme of loss but done with beautiful pop melodies, lovely backing vocals, Bontempi-like synth flourishes and a big dose of horns. It flies by in two and half minutes but the oddly Morrissey-esque lyrics stick in the mind for much longer.
Track 9 – ‘Tactics’ – Zauner is at her vocally-breathiest, over a string driven, charismatic track. The opening swoon of strings should come as a surprise given the orchestration of the rest of the album but it doesn’t. Once again, the fluidity of the album’s movement from style to style is impressive. I assume this to be a big old lovesick love song to her husband and quite beautiful it is too.
Track 10 – ‘Posing for Cars‘ – If Paprika was a literal fanfare to start the album, then Posing for Cars is a definite ‘farewell wave goodbye’ to close and highlights the perfect sequencing of tracks on this album. It is a well considered finale that builds and grows in a stadium rock stylee, the first nearly 3 mins being free of percussion. But as the song grows it introduces strings, bass guitar and finally a screeching lead guitar solo that feels odd and perfectly in keeping all at the same time. The track is double the length of most of the tracks and for me closes out the album perfectly.
The critical response to this album has been largely very positive with a MetaCritic score of 88% with plenty of 100% reviews. Whilst I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it is special. It’s very easy to consume and connect with. Its available on many levels. It can be background music, music to work to but I think best consumed when you can give it the attention that I think it deserves. I would be very surprised if I end up listening to any other album as much as this. This will feature highly in my 2021 top 10.
7 thoughts on “AOTM – July – ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast”
This is a lovely write up for an album that is an absolute joy to listen to. I’ll take some time to respond more deeply in due course, but I’ve had this album in my life for a good couple of months and it’s so pleasurable to listen to.
Musically it’s close to perfection at times. Be Sweet, as I’ve said already, is one of the standout tracks of the year, straight out of a 1980s teen movie as the lead song. It’s so well done, and like many of the tracks on this album, while it nods to an era or style, it doesn’t really sound exactly like anything else either. There’s so many points when I think ‘oh my god, this sounds just like…’ and I can’t put my fingers on it. That’s testament to great songwriting, and the whole album sings with brilliantly written music. The hooks, the choruses, the intros. They’re so, SO good.
I’m only really scratching the surface with the lyrics at the moment, mainly because I’ve listened mainly in a work or home environment, and while it’s gone down well with the family in the car and kitchen, I need some real headphone listening. That’s what the next two weeks will be for…. I’ll also be checking out previous work too.
But I’m so glad you chose this Joey. It’s a joy.
Nice one. Glad you’re enjoying it. I went through the same thing – how ‘deep’ was I actually listening to the lyrics. Once I dived a bit deeper the returns were well worth it.
So. Interesting choice this, and an album I’m largely enjoying a fair bit, though I think my response to it is still evolving.
It’s a well-crafted affair, with thoughtful, personal lyrics and nice production. The opening track, Paprika, might be the best opening track of any album this year. It’s PHENOMENAL. I’m not sure all of the rest of the album quite lives up to it, though there are plenty of other highlights – Savage Good Boy is just wonderful, and Posing in Bondage is a total standout, both musically and lyrically.
However, for every standout track, there’s a fair bit of filler. Tracks like Slide Tackle and Sit sound awfully familiar to me, the kind of synth washed dream pop that’s been dominating indie music for the last decade. And I know this might be a controversial take, but thought Be Sweet is an obvious single, it doesn’t do an awful lot for me – again, that 80s Fleetwood Mac vibe so beloved of so many artists is too evident. It’s just not quite memorable enough, melodically.
The other thing that’s maybe stopping me from being totally in love with this record is her voice. It’s quite flat and nasal – so when she does the breathy, intimate vocals e.g. Posing in Bondage, it works fantastically, but when she’s reaching for a bigger, emotional take, she doesn’t quite get there for me.
So all in all, an album I’m enjoying with a number of genuine highlights, but I think the insanely positive reviews are a little bit generous. Looking forward to discussing further anyway…
My god, Be Sweet is one of the tracks of the year. I thought a pop being like you would be head over heels in love with it. I feel like I don’t even KNOW you.
Update: I’m slowly falling in love with this album I think. Watch this space for a slightly more reasonable justification than this.
Like football I’m finding this an album of two halves and I’m not sure why?
Paprika is a brilliant first track. I love albums that start strong like this. Setting the tone for the rest of the album.
It’s so jubilant on the outside. But delves into her inner struggle…
‘Oh, it’s a rush
Oh, it’s a rush
But alone it feels like dying
All alone I feel so much’
As you swiftly move to song two, I agree with Joey, it’s retro Molly Ringwald-esk 80’s synth pop perfection.
Track 3 Kolombo initially say funny in the line up but I think is actually one of the best stand alone tracks on the album.
Then rounding off a great start, Posing in Bondage is a Goliath of a song. It’s throbbing slow groove throughout is infectious and the lyrics create pause worthy moments throughout.
Japanese Breakfasts jumps around a lot and it’s hard to pinpoint this album. There are so many influences, but they all sit nicely together. It’s very well produced. The second half specifically touches on a fair few artists.
Every time I listen to the album I always think that the second half passes me by and it a bit watered down bit actually individually looking at each song they’re pretty strong; though in different space the last three tracks can be a bit beige if I’m being over critical.
The album sits well in our house. Both my wife and daughter really like it. I think I like it as well, but I wish I didn’t listen to the Minnie Driver podcast as it sort of ruined the album for me… but I’ll leave that for the podcast.
I read a wonderful quote that said ‘this album is blotted with shadows’. It nicely sums up and underbelly that is always there throughout this album. The craft that this is composed with is hard to achieve but executed perfectly throughout.
Well, here we are. Where am I with this? A few days out from the episode record, I’m pleased to say that I’m sort of ‘Weather Station’ plus, because while that album took more time than it should have reasonably done to work its way into my subconscious, this has pleasantly got way ahead of that thing of beauty. Because Jubilee is something more than that to me. Where – and I have no reason to be down on the recent AOTM, it’s just comparison – Ignorance traded in emotional and metaphorical narrative backed by that AOR, Fleetwood Mac shimmer, this album does something much more interesting to me: it takes on modern pop music with more than a nod to all sorts of my favourite sounds, textures and styles. In short, it’s a fantastic album.
Once again, like The Weather Station, or Genesis, or (spoiler alert) next month’s AOTM, I am yet again wondering how I didn’t really encounter Michelle Zauner before this year. Yes, you dangled her in front of us briefly a few years back @misterstory, but I would agree that, much as her last album (which I’ve listened to a few times now) was really good, I’m not sure it would, or could, have had the impact on me that this one does. But like anything it’s useful to delve into past works to look and the lineage. What’s one of the most surprising things here is how unexpected the music of Jubilee feels in comparison.
Of course, it’s not just about the music, is it? It’s hard not to have to take in the wider context of Zauner’s career when looking at her music. How can you not when it’s informed so much of her life? Tragedy, love, loss, death, family, as well as a heavy undertone of ‘otherness’ as a Korean-American brought up in the north-west of the States. But coming to Jubilee as the first album of her band, you’d be forgiven to thinking such a musically joyous, vibrant and listenable work wasn’t borne of such emotional hardship. Because on face value – much like Arlo Parks, Genesis Owusu and The Weather Station before it – it’s a hugely accessible album that only reveals itself as you come to live with it.
And my, what a musical experience it is. From the already classic Paprika, with its drum-roll march and celebration of performance, to possibly one of the best singles of the year in Be Sweet, it’s such a strong opening you’d worry it’s never going to maintain that momentum. But actually – TINH recurring theme klaxon – the programming and sheer ability to weave together different styles and tempos makes it stand out from the ridiculous amount of great music by not just getting the attention but drawing you in ever further in with each listen. For me this is so much more than the sum of its parts. And what parts.
While I could listen to Be Sweet on repeat all year, there’s some real moments of magic on Jubilee. Often from songs that don’t quite feel up to the company at first listen. Kokomo In’s surf-rock-pop stylings feels a bit throwaway at first, but as you go back again and again it’s got so much to love, and is a great example of a musician able to craft such near-perfect melodies that make you simultaneously feel like you’ve heard this all before but then rack your brains to realise you can’t pin it on anything. There’s a string chord that feels like the Beatles, there’s a harmony like the Beach Boys, there’s a plucked guitar that you can’t quite place. All through the album there’s musical surprises. As Joey’s pointed out, the sheer Twin Shadowness of the intro to Slide Tackle, but once it emerges, it’s more than that. Some of the snapshots on Jubilee are air-punch good. When the brass arrives almost at the end of Slide Tackle, on Savage Good Boy, when the ongoing release/sustain peaks with the piano dropping, then drums coming back into the mix halfway through a sequence, are just JOY. You realise that Zauner and her band really are so tight, (much like Genesis’ crew) and the music you get form that is so confident and rewarding.
There’s also a lack of fear about changing pace and feel, whether it’s Posing In Bondage, its breathy sounds glowing into a sort of slow Hot Chip throb (a very GOOD thing) towards the end, or Sit’s echoing fuzz, which then soars into delayed piano notes. It’s so cinematic at almost every turn, so much that while I began thinking Be Sweet was the 80s romantic love blossoming montage soundtrack, I ended up imagining all of the album on a film somewhere, and there’s something about the ambition of that which is just brazenly impressive. There’s real humour here – dark and often uncomfortable, as it is with Savage Good Boy’s twist on the life of the super-rich – and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the lyrics, which are in themselves just another layer to Jubilee’s sorcery. In Hell – if we are to believe the story – is about a dog, but jesus, it’s the saddest song about one I’ve ever heard: “Wheeled you and laid on your side / I cried and cried and at my signal / They stopped your heart and then you died / And under the fluorescence, another sterile room / Where no one ever tells you just how clinical death looks / And I can’t unsee it, the two shots it took”.
Tactics’ strings and rhodesy notes at the start are so nigh on perfect that I feel mystified why no one else has written this song. It flits in and out of so many little inflections where I know it’s something I *know* but again I never quite find it, like the last crossword clue you fleetingly think you have before the thought disappears. And Posing For Cars’ feels at first like it’s lost the album’s energy but then that guitar comes in and it’s into closing credits.
I’d be lying if I didn’t have some reservations. The second half of the album is *only just* not quite the match to the first half, but only because really it can’t be. But I like the comfort it has in lowering the temperature after the poptastic first half. And yes, as @davidhallison and others have commented, when her voice is enveloped in the reverb and echo and slower melodies, it’s perfect, but does sometimes struggle in the higher ranges and volumes. But…. I’m fine with that, it’s character. I don’t want utterly perfect because it’s just not engaging. This really is grown-up pop.
And god, it’s not just me that likes this album. I haven’t really read a nasty word about it. And while others – cough, Sufjan – seem to be that way because of critical blindness, I don’t feel it here. It’s praise where it’s due. Because, as we all well know, it’s HARD to write great pop music, and even harder to make it work across an album that works as a whole in a way that sticks. Having watched a bunch of live performances, I also want to see her live when the band tours in Spring 2022. Who’s in?
This, as they say, already feels like a keeper. Applause, Joey.