There are two kinds of people in this world, “those who have felt pain and those who have yet to”. At least, that’s how Michelle Zauner’s world divided after she lost her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2014. That lyric lies at the centre of ‘Jubilee’, her third album as Japanese Breakfast: a record that could only be made by somebody who has felt pain, and is brave enough to try and defy it.
The Korean-American artist released her debut album ‘Psychopomp’ in 2016, in the aftermath of her mother’s death, swiftly followed by ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’, which planted that grief on a galactic scale. And while her recent memoir ‘Crying In H Mart’ unflinchingly documents sickness and loss, ‘Jubilee’ instead evokes a line from the Spike Jonze film ‘Her’: “We’re only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself joy.”
Opener ‘Paprika’ starts out sad – but only for a second, with a submarine of a synth that surfaces to find a bright, sparkling song, all ribbons and parades and Beirut indie pomp. And the water stays fine for much of the album: a glorious synth riff at the end of lead single ‘Be Sweet’, an exultant sax solo on ‘Slide Tackle’, and the sugary ‘Savage Good Boy’, with swoony Soprano star Michael Imperioli appearing in Zauner’s self-directed music video. At all times, her vocals recall Jenny Lewis at her sweetest (and therefore most deadly), surrounded by Alvvays-style dream-pop architecture.
Not to say there’s no sorrow. ‘Jubilee’ exchanges muddy shoegaze for twinkling pop, but the album isn’t some yellow wash of mindless positivity. Like all the best purveyors of sadbangers, Zauner knows that joy is far more precious and powerful when presented as the flipside to grief.
Tricky topics swim beneath the record’s chirpiness, like parental estrangement, pet euthanasia, and feeling alone. ‘Kokomo, IN’ takes place not on the Beach Boys’ utopian island but in the real-life Indiana city, where Zauner longs for a lost lover: “I’ll wait, passing time just popping wheelies / and kicking round this flyover state / watching you show off to the world the parts I fell so hard for”. On War On Drugs-esque closer, ‘Posing For Cars’, Zauner admits, “I’m just a woman with loneliness”.
In fact, the slower, darker tracks contain the emotional engine propelling ‘Jubilee’. The drawn-out yearning of ‘Posing In Bondage’ occurs in a Blade Runner meets Spirited Away dystopia – perfectly realised in the music video, again directed by Zauner – with an energy more palpable than any upbeat pop. The dark sci-fi hedonism carries over to ‘Sit’, driven by a dangerous love: the kind of song that bypasses your ears to course straight through your veins.
For Zauner, ‘Jubilee’ documents “how the joyous is difficult, how it’s hard to experience joy, and you have to fight for it. It’s rare and precious and it’s important to protect it and covet it”. So much of her new album feels breezy – thin reedy sounds that could scatter at the slightest puff. But there’s just enough darkness to give that carefree happiness a greater edge: joy, even – especially – via the absence of joy.