Japanese Breakfast – “In Heaven” (Stereogum Premiere)

Michelle Zauner started Japanese Breakfast in response to a creative rut she was in after writing and recording the debut Little Big League record, a project she also fronts. It began with June, a song-a-day writing experiment that eventually blossomed to include two further releases — Where Is My Great Big Feeling?, another song-a-day project, and the 2014 tape American Sound. Psychopomp, out at the beginning of April, is technically Japanese Breakfast’s debut album, but it comes with the fine-tuning of a songwriter and singer who has honed her skills of two-plus projects. The new record combines some re-recorded versions of older tracks and a few new ones, including the gutting opener “In Heaven.”

This one hits particularly close to home, as Zauner processes the loss of a loved one and tries to figure out how to move on from such insurmountable pain. After my parents died — something I’ve written a little bit about before — what surprised me most was how much physical evidence of their former selves remained: the paperwork, mementos, souvenirs, clothing, what was left behind in their garbage cans. It’s a curious and painful thing, packing up an entire life that doesn’t belong to you but shares a familial history, tied to your blood but not of you. I’ve discarded two houses full of belongings that weren’t mine, holding onto only a few tokens to keep as reminders. It’s a part of the grieving process, deciding what is worth keeping and what must be thrown away. There’s only a finite amount of space in the world, after all. And once it’s gone and packed, what you have left are the memories, the feelings of love and support — the things that take up the least space, but are the most important.

“In Heaven” opens with an elegant piano flutter before charging into the craggy bulk of the song, broken up periodically by strings and and Zauner’s elegiac vocals. “The dog’s confused/ She paces around all day/ She’s sniffing around your empty room,” she recounts. In the next verse, Zauner asks, “Is there something you can do with yourself as I sift through the debris while I empty every shelf?” Death is not just an absence, it’s the presence of things that once were. “I came here for the long haul/ Now I leave here an empty fucking hole” — loss is a gulf, wide and deep and something that’s so easy to fall into and never climb out of. But Zauner uses faith, and the doubt in that faith, to help traverse that expanse: “I’m trying to believe/ When I sleep it’s really you/ Visiting my dreams, like they say that angels do.”

“Oh, do you believe in heaven?” Zauner asks in the first chorus. “Like you believed in me.” In the second chorus, she subtly switches syntax and asks, “How do you believe in heaven? Like you believe in me?/ Oh, it could be such heaven/ If you believed it was real.” The loss is complicated and insurmountable and results in many frayed edges, but out of that grief Zauner has created a beacon of hope. Listen below.

Psychopomp is out 4/1 via Yellow K Records. You can pre-order it here.