Cultures Music

Review: Japanese Breakfast’s “Jubilee”

Jubilee – the third studio album by Japanese Breakfast, fronted by Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner – is ostensibly an album about joy. This stands in strong contrast to the band’s earlier albums, Psychopomp (2016) and Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017). These albums often manifested happiness in the lyrics, but they were always lyrically underscored by Zauner’s grief at the death of her mother. Jubilee expands on Psychopomp‘s poppier moments, but its brightness is more immediately visible. At the same time, though, it understands joy as a complex phenomenon, never straightforward, always grappling with darkness – something which must be fought for.

Many albums have formally explored the stages of grief. But Zauner’s explores the stages of joy: the blinding immediacy of it, the darker underbelly, and the difficulty of allowing oneself to be happy even when events suggest that happiness should not be possible.

Technically, this is an album with admirable stylistic variety. Despite this experimentation, there are no weak links, something I can say very rarely about an album. Its biggest inheritance, I think, is last year’s standout Phoebe Bridgers album, Punisher. I say ‘inheritance’, not ‘influence’ because this album and Jubilee are fundamentally different projects, and were probably being written in a similar timeframe. But they both share the same record label, Dead Oceans, and there are moments in the darker parts of Jubilee where Zauner sounds remarkably like Bridgers. I think it might be worth listening to them in tandem – Zauner, in this comparison, is like Bridgers’s ‘bright side’. Both albums are about the rawness of feeling – lyrics come subservient to the sensations created by incredibly lush soundscapes. But Zauner’s is a bright warmth, where Bridgers’s is muggy: June to her October.

“Paprika” is the best pop opener I’ve heard since Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia”. It’s the album’s brightest and simplest expression, lyrically revelling in the present moment and the present tense. There’s an almost preternatural power in the lyrics: “How does it feel to stand at the height of your powers to captivate every heart?” Zauner asks. The lyrics also reflect on the captivating (if clichéd) power of music: one of the things this album will attempt to prove is that music itself is a form of “magic”.

“Be Sweet” and “Kokomo, IN” continue this thematic rush: they’re easy listens, almost unsettlingly bright. On “Be Sweet”, Zauner breezily addresses a former lover with the injunction to “Make it up to me / you know it’s better.” But she does so with such uncomplicated breeziness that she sounds like Dua Lipa or Lady Gaga in the club, embodying the beauty of not giving a fuck. She doesn’t need her lover back, not really: she’s beautifully indifferent to it.

At the same time, there’s something sinister creeping in. On “Paprika”, Zauner reveals a vulnerable side: “Alone it feels like dying / All alone I feel so much.” But this is not so much a fear of isolation as a fear of being overpowered by her own complex emotions: like the strange ascendancy of Radiohead’s “Last Flowers”, this is “too much / too bright / too powerful.”

“Slide Tackle” and “Sit” are musically innovative; the former feels like a cut from a Future Islands or Sufjan Stevens album, with a beach-ballad vibe and an incredible horn section which is perhaps the album’s most sonically rich moment. “Posing in Bondage” and “Savage Good Boy”, both released as singles, turn towards darkness. They’re curious within the album because they speak in voices which are not Zauner’s own. The speaker of “Posing in Bondage” is a higher being, à la Björk or self-titled era St. Vincent, expressing a complex, beyond-words relationship between love and “Bondage”, which she “need[s]”. On “Savage Good Boy”, a pitched-up Zauner expresses a desire to “be a man”, a “savage good boy” who “will be so wealthy” that he’s “absolved from questioning.” This is the album’s most proudly feminist moment, but it’s played from the ‘dark side’, satirising the speaker’s position. In the context of the album’s themes, this is another form of happiness, but one which is societally problematic.

“In Hell” contrasts “In Heaven”, a song on Psychopomp about Zauner’s dog. On Psychopomp this was a lyrically upbeat song which, at closer examination, over-exposed the absence of Zauner’s late mother. On Jubilee it is wonderful and bizarre. The lyrics are probably the darkest and most powerfully longing on the album: “Hell is finding someone to love / And I can’t have you.” But these Tumblr-appropriate lyrics peel back the truth of the speaker’s brief happiness in “Paprika” and “Be Sweet”. Sensation is, in this Bridgers-like moment, overwhelmed by the sump. “Tactics” is a beautiful song which wallows in this despond, but turns it beautiful by taking unique musical inspiration from Randy Newman. The melody sounds, at moments, like it might burst into “Married Life” from the Up soundtrack. It’s the album’s purest ballad, with wistful lyrics which sound like offcuts from Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately: “Move a great distance from you / Cross a sea, keep you from me.”

“Posing for Cars” is not a perfect closer, but it’s thematically fitting. Again, Bridger’s Punisher pops up. Just like Bridgers’ “I Know The End”, the conclusion brings the speaker to a moment of absolute lyrical rock bottom: “I’m just a hollow root pushing through / I’m just the empty space inside the room… / Just a single slow desire fermenting.” And then, again like Bridgers, it starts to build. At the end of Jubilee, words fail. But once more, this is an album about sensation: about the smell of paprika and persimmons and the sound of distant oceans. Words fail, so music does the work. And as the solo unfolds, rising and rising for nearly three minutes, mellow and boppable at once, the promise of music as magic – greater and more healing than words – is fulfilled. In the end, joy does not have to be, and perhaps cannot be, put into words. “How does it feel,” Zauner asked, “to stand at the height of your powers?” There’s no answer in words. But there is this.

Joseph Geldman (he/him) is the Senior Lifestyle Editor for The Oxford Blue. He is an MSt student in Romantic-period English literature at St Cross and previously studied English at Wadham. He pretends to like coffee more than he actually does.