Michelle Zauner’s mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2014. If you’re familiar with Zauner’s work, either as the beloved indie-rock artist Japanese Breakfast or as the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Crying In H Mart, you probably know the story. Zauner has spent the better part of the past decade publicly excavating her trauma through art — first on her 2016 debut solo album Psychopomp, then on 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and most recently in Crying In H Mart. But her new album Jubilee, out at the end of the week, is the beginning of a new chapter for Japanese Breakfast. “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” Zauner wrote in a statement announcing the LP. “For me, a third record should feel bombastic and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this one … I wanted to re-experience the pure, unadulterated joy of creation.”
“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?” Zauner sings on “Paprika,” Jubilee‘s opening track, before answering her own question with some of that pure, unadulterated joy she was talking about: “Oh, it’s a rush!” Exultant horns and strings, almost Beirut-esque, echo her as the song transforms from its opening wash of synths into a celebratory march, a nod to the “Parade” theme from anime auteur Satoshi Kon’s mind-bending 2006 film Paprika. It’s a powerful opening salvo and statement of intent for Jubilee, immediately signifying Japanese Breakfast’s shift towards the light.
In the years since Soft Sounds, Zauner rededicated herself to mastering piano and studying music theory, and it shows. Encouraged by her bandmate and co-producer Craig Hendrix, she helped compose the sumptuous string and horn arrangements that are all over the record, making it the musically richest Japanese Breakfast release to date. “Be Sweet,” written with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum, takes the disco tendencies of Psychopomp‘s “The Woman That Loves You” and Soft Sounds‘ “Machinist” and blows them up into a funky ’80s pop jam; the languid, melancholic closer “Posing For Cars” climaxes with an anthemic crescendo and a fiery guitar solo. Everything on Jubilee sounds bigger. The punchy moments hit harder, the quiet moments feel more textured — even Zauner’s voice sounds more confident. When we saw Japanese Breakfast play at Pitchfork Festival in 2018, we marveled at the joy and buoyancy she brought to her set of songs about grief, and with Jubilee, she’s brought that same pop starpower to the record.
That’s not to say that Jubilee is all smiles and rainbows, a soundtrack for uncomplicated good times. Even the brightest, poppiest songs on the album, like the ebullient “Be Sweet” or the sighing “Kokomo, IN,” are marked by ambivalence and longing. But they’re also, ultimately, optimistic. “Recognize your mistakes and I’ll let you back in/ Realize not too late, loved you always,” Zauner sings on “Be Sweet,” choosing forgiveness. “If ever you come back/ Wherever you find your way to/ And though it may not last/ You know that I’ll be here always,” the teenage boy protagonist of “Kokomo, IN” promises an absent lover. “Tactics,” based on Zauner’s experience with her own father, centers on a toxic relationship, but crucially, it finds the protagonist prioritizing their own happiness and walking away: “Say what you want/ Dose upon fiction, disfigure the truth/ While I walk, life beating on.”
Zauner knows better than most that joy doesn’t come easy; it’s hard-fought and hard-won. “I want to be good/ I want to navigate this hate in my heart/ Somewhere better,” she sings on the deceptively chill “Slide Tackle,” wrestling her inner demons into a submission found in the victorious horn-led conclusion: “Don’t mind me while I’m tackling this void/ Slide tackling my mind/ This weight feels like/ I’m wrestling with my head.” When Zauner says that Jubilee is about joy, she also means it’s about all the battles and compromises and yes, even losses, that naturally arrive in its pursuit. It is, as she puts it, “a record about fighting to feel … The songs are about recalling the optimism of youth and applying it to adulthood. They’re about making difficult choices, fighting ignominious impulses and honoring commitments, confronting the constant struggle we have with ourselves to be better people.”
There are moments of real darkness on Jubilee, too. “In Hell” is a song about putting down a beloved family pet: “Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t have you/ Hell is finding someone to love and I can’t see you again” goes the chorus. But even that despair, that literal hell, is tempered by the inescapable prettiness of it all — the melodic sweetness of Zauner’s vocals, the plinky, surprisingly catchy synth part that immediately follows that devastating line, the omnipresent harmonies and horns. The record’s loneliest track is another love story of distance and disconnection, but where “Kokomo, IN” has a youthful earnestness to it, “Posing In Bondage” just feels empty and alone: “Can you tell I’ve been posing/ This way alone for hours?/ Waiting for your affection/ Waiting for you/ Done up and drunk/ Done up and fixed on/ All of the nights you turned away my touch.” It’s one of the darker-sounding tracks on the album, but the glossy synth-pop production, climaxing with a clanging, almost industrial breakdown, is so impeccable that listening to it is like hearing a master at work.
Zauner is hyper-conscious of her body of work as a whole, her legacy, and of Jubilee‘s place in it. In interviews, she’s talked about being inspired by other big artists’ third albums: Wilco’s Summerteeth, Björk’s Homogenic, Kate Bush’s Never For Ever. These records don’t necessarily have much in common, but they’re all examples of auteurs straddling the commercial and art spheres while uncompromisingly pursuing their own visions — of singular artists leveling up and becoming fully themselves. Jubilee is that, too. As Zauner alludes to at the start of the album, she is at the height of her powers — as a musician, as a writer, even as a music video director. How many independent musicians have their first book debut at #2 on the New York Times best-sellers list? How many get Sopranos star Michael Imperioli to appear in their music videos? How many can make an album like Jubilee? To put it another way… How’s it feel to witness Zauner at the height of her powers? Captivating every heart? Projecting her visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word? Oh, it’s a rush!
Jubilee is out 6/4 via Dead Oceans. Pre-order it here.
Other albums out this week:
• Crowded House’s Dreamers Are Waiting.
• Lil Baby & Lil Durk’s The Voice Of The Heroes.
• Rostam’s Changephobia.
• James’ All The Colours Of You.
• Red Fang’s Arrows.
• Loraine James’ Reflection.
• Rise Against’s Nowhere Generation.
• Billy Gibbson’s Hardware.
• Poté’s A Tenuous Tale Of Her.
• Hildegard’s Hildegard.
• The Avalanches’ Since I Left You (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition).
• Liz Phair’s Soberish.
• Dead Heat’s World At War.
• Goose’s SHENANIGANS NITE CLUB.
• Flotsam And Jetsam’s Blood In The Water.
• Wolf Alice’s Blue Weekend.
• Militarie Gun’s All Roads Lead To The Gun EP.
• We Are The Union’s Ordinary Life.
• The Problem Of Leisure: A Celebration Of Andy Gill And Gang Of Four.