Review: Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet

Note: This piece was originally published as part of the /r/Indieheads 2017 Album of the Year series.

Over the course of her two albums as Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner has turned the project primarily into an act of world-building. From the family photo that graces the cover of her 2016 debut Psychopomp to the lengthy note and freehand illustrations and accompanying each song in the lyric booklet for its follow-up Soft Sounds From Another Planet, she evokes a highly personalized sense of the world around her. Japanese Breakfast is a space in which Zauner mediates her experience of this world and, through the visual mythology that informs the project, invites the listener to do the same with theirs.

On Psychopomp, this experience was marked by a kind of claustrophobic weight. The album portrayed a world of heavy hands, hospital beds, and tattered sleeves that reflected the slow violence of grief accompanying death by terminal illness. Naturally then, Soft Sounds acts as an expansion of this world, taking the blunted narratives of Psychopomp and casting them across a much wider canvas.

This newfound expansiveness is established immediately on opener “Diving Woman,” a sprawling, six-minute, shoegaze-tinged odyssey. Gone are the compact song lengths that defined her early cassette works. Soft Sounds instead announces itself as a vast, wandering landscape, one in which Zauner feels appropriately lost. “When I get back there, baby/I’m gonna make you a home,” she declares without alluding to what “there” is or what that home might mean to her. Her trajectory is set, but without an endpoint, and this uncertainty defines many of the stories on the album.

Japanese-Breakfast-Soft-Sounds-From-Another-Planet-Press-Pic-copy
Michelle Zauner by Ebru Yildiz

While Zauner may have imbued Soft Sounds with a far more ambitious sense of scale, it does not make her songwriting any less focused. Here, the keen structural instincts she presented on Psychopomp are honed to a razor-sharp degree, not wasting a second as tracks build and unfold. This concision, however, never comes at the expense of narrative, with each verse given just the amount of time it needs to build a richly informed scene with sparing-but-precise detail. On standout “Road Head,” she sings of “lightless miles of big rigs,” evoking a near-cosmic sense of smallness in the face of her circumstances, her vocals blurring into the song’s grand instrumental sweep.

This focus on songwriting and structure allows for a foundation in which Zauner is able to explore a consistently novel palate of sounds. The album veers from the space-pop of “Machinist” to the alt-country leanings of the title track and “Boyish” without missing a step, all thanks to the formidable melodic backbone underpinning the performances. This experimental edge, fostered in part by co-producer Craig Hendrix, gives the album an equally engaging element of soundcraft that felt at-times absent in Psychopomp’s perpetual haze.

Soft Sounds presents Zauner’s growth not just as a songwriter, but as a performer. Where previously, her vocals often reached for the rafters over entire tracks, she lends the album a newfound expressiveness and dynamic range that enhances the lyrical subtext even further. The tired way in which she states “that’s not the way to hurt me,” on the title track, or her pleading “don’t turn away, I’m still awake” on “Till Death” make for hauntingly effective moments. Zauner fully inhabits the stories she portrays, conveying the pain, vulnerability, and determination of her speakers in intimate detail.

This narrative precision ultimately forms the core of Soft Sounds. Each track is a vignette, a catalyzing moment in Zauner’s life given shape by the song around it. Throughout, she portrays a stunning amount of nuance given her relatively sparse lyrics. That she can portray a lifetime of empty sexuality with “Road Head’s” “pump and run” chorus, or leaving a partner for someone else in a way that somehow sympathizes with all parties in only two minutes on “12 Steps” is a testament to her lyrical and musical skill.

Said skill is not wasted on petty matters either. Soft Sounds is laden with visceral depictions of trauma and illness in a way few rock albums have managed to do. This is largely due to Zauner’s uncompromising vulnerability and clarity of vision as an artist. On her most daring moment, she closes “Till Death” simply by listing these demons outright: “PTSD, anxiety, genetic disease, thanatophobia.” It is a powerful act of reclamation, one that gestures towards healing in a vital and necessary way.

This relationship to healing is what makes Soft Sounds such a significant work. There is a reason for the expansive sonics of the instrumentation: it is an album about the distances that form when a person has been wounded by the world. Distances from oneself, ones heritage, sexuality, interpersonal connections, body, and more. Soft Sounds explores these spaces with a deft and sensitive hand, envisioning a far-off planet in which a reassembled self might exist. On the album, that place at last draws near with the approaching clarion of closer “Here Come the Tubular Bells.” It is the sound of another world returning at last after two albums of upheaval and pain: Home.

Having detailed the album more than enough, I’m going to break my own writerly principles and speak candidly for a second:

As a woman, a queer woman, a trans woman, a woman who has been relegated to the edges of society, you have no idea what it means for a record like this to exist.

Soft Sounds is an album about the sensations of otherness experienced by women, and it portrays these in a way that feels ripped from my own head. When she sings “last ditch desperate, like a makeshift siphon,” I know exactly what she means, and it is not a feeling I have heard in art before. When she describes a house “full of women sharing trauma, doing dishes” I know the place she is talking about. I have been in those spaces. Those spaces have saved me. To hear them memorialized in song makes me feel known. It makes me feel seen. To hear those soothing bells enter the frame makes me feel like I am capable of healing too.

In years to come, Soft Sounds will be a companion for so many of the wounded, the marginalized, the invisible who are contained in its verses. People will not feel alone because of this album. People will see themselves in this album. People will heal because of the strength this album gives them. I have felt these things because of this album. I know others have too. That is why this album is so, so necessary. Soft Sounds is a compendium for the unheard. It broadcasts their voices into the sky, showing them a roadmap back to themselves.

To heal is the most important thing a work of art can do. That’s why this is my album of the year.

Stream Soft Sounds from Another Planet:  Apple Music / Spotify

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