Japanese Breakfast Tackles the Pursuit of Happiness With Gleeful ‘Jubilee’

Considering how much powerful music is born out of struggle, the relative dearth of songs devoted to the expression of joy, at least within the indie sphere, should come as no major surprise. It has always generally been more fashionable to be brooding and tortured than blissful or even merely content. Michelle Zauner, who records under the moniker of Japanese Breakfast, has had her share of troubled times, and her music until now was largely an expression of those experiences. Her 2016 debut, “Psychopomp” was written while cancer took its toll on her mother, and the followup, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” found her coping with the loss. Having somewhat expelled her demons, Zauner breaks new ground with “Jubilee,” an album that endeavors to find happiness through music that successfully realizes it. The shoegaze sounds that characterized Zauner’s earlier work now become a minor element in an ambitious, bright, new sound that makes for some of her most captivating material yet.

It only takes about thirty seconds for Zauner to make due on the promise of the album’s title. Opener “Paprika” promptly takes off with an instantaneous chorus of gliding, cascading vocal melodies that build to an ecstatic affirmation of “Oh, it’s a rush.” Zauner’s booming voice effectively conveys the sentiment, and a horn section seals the deal. This is a “jubilee” indeed, with a delightfully risible breeziness that is unprecedented for Japanese Breakfast. This is taken several levels further with the festive romp that is lead single “Be Sweet,” a track with an illuminating backstory. Zauner was paired with Jack Tatum of indie group WIld Nothing for a writing session, whereupon each artist found the imposition of a writing partner an unwelcome hindrance. Their way of dealing with the predicament was to abandon any aspirations of staying true to their individual voices, and instead writing something boldly out of character. The ‘80s are a natural choice for escapist ventures, and this track gets the full ‘80s treatment, as Zauner tackles the sounds of the decade, letting her guard down with a liberating silliness. It’s telling that the refrain of this punchy pop song is “I wanna believe you” rather than “I believe in you,” as is this album is altogether more of an imaginative grasp for happiness than an expression of its full realization. 

In “Kokomo, IN,” Zauner again explores infatuation in terms of hypotheticals, with a chorus of “If ever you come back…” Here she sings from the perspective of a boy from the titular Indiana town, saying goodbye to his high school sweetheart. The subject matter could be clipped from early Beach Boys fare, and that somehow makes its way into the sound too, without any overt musical nods.  There’s a decidedly different feel from that of “Be Sweet,” languorous and sprawling, as if the same instincts intimated in the opener have been stretched out and relaxed. Triumphant strings fill in for the horns, and Zauner sings the song as if in a single, sweeping sigh. By the point “Slide Tackle” comes along, this album is already full of bangers, and one has to appreciate Zauner’s knack for streamlined songsmithing. She dons a whispery voice over an insistent backbeat with a vaguely chillwave feel. Quintessentially ‘80s guitar and bass lines meet their match with the superlative indulgence of a saxophone solo. “Be sweet to me” now becomes “Be good to me,” as the metanarrative continues, and Zauner grapples with the mental gymnastics that can be a prerequisite to the experience of pleasure. 

In the single “Posing In Bondage,” Zauner explores the space between the comforting and restrictive qualities of attachment, singing, “I needed / Bondage / Closeness / Proximity.” The frivolity that has characterized the music until now takes a darker sonic turn. The track works its magic with controlled tension, as Zuner offers glimpses of freedom and revelry in the gaps between the shifting tectonics of vaguely industrial, skittering drums. The album’s prevailing sonic palette remains at close reach, lightening the balance in spurts of tropical chimes, while pitched-down vocals and slightly discordant, ringing horns create a haunting aural experience.  

Zauner lingers in this sonic and lyrical space for “Sit,” shrouded in shoegaze haze and serrated synths. Her voice sounds ever so slightly strained, reaching out into the distance with a transcendent quality, as she remains a step removed, “caught up in the idea of someone.” The whole song passes in one momentous sweep. 

Having already hinted obliquely at the unspoken absurdities intrinsic to romantic relationships, Zauner advances with new hilarity on “Savage Good Boy,” singing, “And when the city’s underwater / I will wine and dine you in the hollows / On a surplus of freeze dried foods.” The whimsical arrangement is fittingly playful, with laser zaps, pitched-up vocals, and music that shifts elegantly under a monotonous, plodding beat that gives the sense of being firmly grounded with plenty of wiggle room. The track culminates in, out of all things, a tease of a dueling guitar solo, and why not?  

The theme of loss that characterized much of Zauner’s earlier work resurfaces on “In Hell,” a companion piece to “In Heaven” from “Psychopomp.” In that song, she sought to make sense of a loved one’s passing by considering it from the narrowed perspective of a dog. She has described the new song, which finds her putting the same dog down, as possibly the saddest she has ever written. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from first listen, however, as Zauner sings her troubles away over a rubbery beat, trickling chimes, and more horns. “Tactics” takes a pleasantly sluggish pace, paralleling “Kokomo, IN” and adding a certain symmetry to the record’s running time. Like many of the new songs, this one has a camp quality to it, but this time upbeat festivity is traded for mawkish balladry. Themes from “Posing In Bondage” resurface as Zauner sings of “aching for others, with love that stops short,” now with a complacent composure in her voice, validated by a warm arrangement of rosy strings and lullaby-like melodies. Finally comes the epic closer “Posing For Cars.” After an album full of joyous, percussive bouts, a sparse, acoustic guitar-led arrangement allows Zauner’s voice to resonate. It feels as if the “jubilee” whose notion was entertained in so many fantastical flurries along the way now lingers on the horizon, ever out of reach but at a comfortable distance. When drums and strings enter midway, it feels earned, and the track trudges along gracefully, climaxing in a sprawling guitar solo.    

“Jubilee” is easily Japanese Breakfast’s most ambitious work to date. Zauner takes on no less lofty a subject than the pursuit of happiness, in all of its intricacies. At times this leads to escapist indulgences, realized in ‘80s extravagance and outlandishly punchy pop tunes. Elsewhere it takes the form of unsparing, somber examinations, brought to life with fitting musical machinery and texture. Overall, the album is playful without ever seeming frothy. The songs are buoyant and infectious, with just enough well-situated lulls and dips along the way to communicate the full dynamism of the subject matter. Confessional candor is balanced with dry humor and fanciful narratives, over a musical palette that allows Zauner to realize latent proclivities and make bold new advances in a set of consistently catchy, memorable songs.  

Jubilee” releases June 4 on Apple Music.