With Jubilee, Japanese Breakfast make a personal and social statement, proving indie rock doesn’t have to be tepid and stodgy.
For the last couple of years, big Internet music press has been hellbent on selling us this notion that indie rock is still the most vital mode of pop song-making around, a dominant force on yearly “Best Of” lists at various entrenched publications. Indicative of an ever-growing gulf between critic community and general audience, tepid, stodgy albums like Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud are celebrated as evidence that rock music is here to stay, but who’s really listening? Japanese Breakfast is an act that’s benefited from the press’s attempt to reorient toward a rockist future, but they’re also a group that’s been able to reimagine themselves a couple times over in their short existence, most recently and appealingly with Jubilee, their third LP.
Once the primary vocalist of punky Philadelphia emo band Little Big League, Michelle Zauner split from that band and relocated to Eugene, Oregon to be with her mother who was fighting a cancer that would eventually end her life. Japanese Breakfast began as a project through which Zauner processed her emotional distress following this tragedy; initially a solo act, soon after, a full band. Naturally, the tone and material on their first two albums skewed darker and colder, moving from 2016’s melancholic, lo-fi Psychopomp to the lonely, existentially-troubled Soft Sounds from Another Planet two years later without perking up particularly. Jubilee marks a conscious turn toward warmer emotions, repurposing the band’s instrumentation and compositional ideas to create bright, danceable tunes complementary to Zauner’s evolving perspective.
Admittedly, like most artists operating in this sort of pop strata, Japanese Breakfast aren’t exactly forging a unique path ahead with Jubilee, so much as they have managed to confidently claim and personalize current popular aesthetic trends. Embracing a moody ‘80s production sound largely built on synth and drum machine (part of the band’s repertoire in the past, though never so much as here) with strong bass lines and occasional disco strings. It’s a popular styling at the moment, but Zauner’s crisp, fem vocals offer a cool counter to these slinky, late-night melodies, her voice slipping from Kim Deal (track three, “Kokomo, IN,” sounds remarkably like The Breeders’ “Drivin’ on 9”) to Madonna and back, with casual effort. The result is commanding, yet cautious, a purposeful take on this aesthetic that accentuates the album’s central tension.
While Jubilee is certainly Japanese Breakfast’s most ebullient work, it’s anchored by insecurity and lingering pain (both personal and social) expressed lyrically. Album opener “Paprika” sets the tone for what’s to come with Zauner’s conflicted description of her recent fame (described as “a rush” while also being compared to opening floodgates that dispense no water) set to the crescendo of a marching band’s drums and horns that lead into the Phil Collins-y single “Be Sweet,” the title phrase intoned in the chorus more like a (gently) pleading request than a demand. Jubilee’s other two singles, “Posing for Bondage” and wonky Alex G collab “Savage Good Boy,” also follow this trend, exuberant pop works contending with doubt and the vulnerability that generally comes with being a woman (the former song’s title sort of a metaphor for heterosexual monogamy, the latter song adopting the perspective of a male billionaire attempting to coax a younger woman into entombing herself with him a la Under the Silver Lake). In these ways, Jubilee proves a smart and enticing switch-up for Zauner and Japanese Breakfast, one that broadens the band’s sound while accommodating the songwriter’s organic spiritual/emotional journey. What might have been another tired, if functional, act of indie rock pastiche is instead something more complicated, a work that chooses to revel in the contradictory.
Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2021 | Part 3.