Just over a year ago, American-Korean Michelle Zauner released a grief-striken and cathartic album called Pyschopomp. Named after the angels that take souls to the afterlife, it was a record that detailed the immediate sadness that Zauner felt after losing her mother to cancer.
It tragically questioned about life after death, enlisted her will to get married to her partner before her mother lost consciousness and chapters the time she spent by her mother’s side in hospital. It featured her mother’s voice in Korean and her mother’s photo on the album’s sleeve. A surprisingly transparent record for a debut and a brave all-encompassing concept.
During those long turbulent times, Michelle Zauner automatically became an emotional cocoon to handle the situation. A constant physical presence but one with less emotion to avoid depression.
Her second album under the slightly confusing moniker Japanese Breakfast entitled Soft Sounds From Another Planet, shows Michelle Zauner gradually launching back to Earth emotionally and attempting to connect to the outside world again, by appreciating those closest to her and viewing the make-up of her life more three-dimensionally.
It’s 15-months on from her debut album and Zauner has entered the final stage of bereavement; the stage of acceptance and moving on.
In the lead single “Machinist“, Zauner addresses the robotic personality (her use of vocoder adding to this metaphor) that she created herself during the pain, whilst using an internal Bat For Lashes style monologue to try to pull herself out of it: “Do you trust me? Can You feel it? Total control. Can’t let go. It could be bliss“. It’s a refreshing and therapeutic aura, which exists throughout the record showcasing Zauner’s growth and healing process.
On “The Body Is A Blade” and “Till Death“, we hear Zauner addressing her current perspective on death and her self-motivation to embrace life. On the former, she speaks about the unenviable task of emptying her mother’s house and waving goodbye to her possessions but realises that her “blood is flowing” and must try her best to “feel and receive” and live while she’s alive.
While on “Till Death” – a play on the marriage oath – she shows gratitude to her husband for his support during the family tragedy: “You embrace, healing my wounds. Teach me to breathe, teach me to move“. Notably in contains one of the most topically lyrics about last year: “All our celebrities keep dying. While the cruel men continue to win“.
Her new found appreciation for her partner is also expressed on “12 Steps“, documenting the day they first met in a bar in South Philadelphia called 12 Steps Down. It’s romantic but slightly awkward as she was dating someone else at the time of the meeting. However, it’s an important track as it shows that whenever there is loss, there is gain and it’s title also seems to pertain to the cathartic step-step guide of improving one self.
Although Soft Sounds… is Zauner’s attempt to move forward with her life, to do this, she still has to look back at her past, with tracks that reference her former band Little Big League (the goofy “Jimmy Fallon Big!“), a ritual in her Korean heritage (“Diving Woman“) and past romances such as the jealousy themed title track “Soft Sounds From Another Planet“. She recycles some of her old material such as “Boyish” and one of her sexually explicit tracks “Road Head“.
Musically, the record can be adventurous within its mix of calming shoegaze, psychedelic and country-flavoured indie rock (jumping from Tennis to Goldfrapp to Waxahatchee) and shows ambition in its use of tubular bells, saxophone, harpischord and fluttery keyboard.
However, the songs can frustrate with the short time lengths making the album flow by all too quickly. Furthermore, it’s also hard to really transform oneself into the atmosphere in such a short space of time. Nonetheless with lyrics so strong and meaningful, it’s easy to see past that flaw.
Japanese Breakfast Soft Sounds From Another Planet is out now via Dead Ocean, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs