With her second album Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Michelle Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, re-emerged with a uniquely experimental pop record, summoning influence from a hurricane of loss, grief, changes in location, failed relationships, raw and playful sexuality, and the opportunity to tour with recently reunited shoegaze legends Slowdive.
Originally from Oregon, she moved to Philadelphia, where she quickly established popularity fronting the band Little Big League. After releasing two albums, she called it quits to return home, where her mother had died of cancer. Her debut studio album, Psychopomp, came soon after, marking both her return to music and Philadelphia’s flourishing music scene. As a New Yorker, I remember first hearing her album and enjoying it solely as a cute, lo-fi, pop album. However, the hilarious lyrics, the undiluted sexuality, the childlike playfulness, and a sort of underlying melancholy permeating the album, inspired further listening.
The songs Heaven and Everybody Wants to Love You could be heard hummed by a passing stranger in the middle of the night in Bushwick. I saw her three times in New York City, the last time being at a tiny venue called Baby’s All Right, which sold out quickly. The crowd knew every word, sang, danced, moshed, and reveled in the glory of a much-anticipated show by an artist effortlessly capturing universal yet deeply personal feelings in an irresistible way.
I saw her again at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a year later, shortly following the release of Soft Sounds from Another Planet. The woman I saw perform on that stage had become a grown woman, accomplishing more than most musicians hope for in their entire lifetimes, despite the tragedy of the loss of her mother. It was a far more somber, meaningful, and ultimately more fulfilling experience than previous times I’d seen her. Although a few tracks from Psychopomp brought back memories of a time a one year earlier when NYC was practically her second home, and the carefree vibe or her shows could be felt, it was clear that her new material was not meant to fit within that post-punk revival, poppy indie rocker scene.
Although Michelle Zauner had contemplated quitting music entirely after Psychopomp, the surprising reception of that album eventually landed her a spot supporting the newly reunited Slowdive on tour, a spot most musicians would kill for. Although their influence on Softer Sounds from Another Planet is undeniable, this is still Zauner’s record.
With this album, comes a polished, beautifully produced, experimental pop record, which sounds as if it was recorded in space, complete with shooting stars flying by, planets and galaxies groaning from far distances, stars dying and being reborn, and mysteriously strange sounds emanating from menacing black stars. In other words, meticulously crafted pop music, featuring dreamy synths, emotionally satisfying vocals in the forefront, skilled rhythmic drumming driving everything forward, and criminally underrated bass lines tying everything together into near sonic perfection.
Despite the otherworldly sounds, the focus remains on Zauner’s experiences here on Earth, for example, a relationship where her efforts to please her partner go unreciprocated. On the track Boyish, the lyrics “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general” are a perfect example of the sad yet clever wordplay Zauner is best at. Musically, the song ends with a solo that mirrors the sentiment of the song exactly. The following track, 12 Steps, comes closer to her previous album, building up quickly and hitting the listener with a surprisingly old-school sharpness in her guitar tone as she sings “tell me I can’t blame you, we let love run its course and it’s a little bit lonelier, I don’t blame you, we let love run its course and it’s a little bit hard…”
The first track, Diving Woman, will come as a bit of a shock to those who have been following her career for a couple of years. While Psychopomp featured playful moments it almost felt like she hadn’t quite yet processed her mother’s death. You can sense in this opening track she’s grown more than most musicians do in a lifetime. The contrast is as startling as the lo-fi grittiness of the first album compared to the polished beauty in Softer Sound’s production. Zauner wants it all, and it’s obvious she’s turned all of her grief and suffering, along with unexpected happiness, into an album that’s sublimely produced. It draws you into her strange world over the journey of twelve songs.
Softer Sounds is an album that, because of its unique circumstances, transcends its scene, one full of artists like Porches, Alvvays, Frankie Cosmos, or fellow Philadelphian Mitski. Although I respect those artists, no album has surprised me by displaying such immense, unprecedented growth as an artist. Think about Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, the following tour with Radiohead, and then how Veckatimest changed the landscape of the indie world at the time. Unlike Grizzly Bear, I believe instead of changing her current scene, she has created a record different from anything heard before. It’s the perfect time capsule of the later 2010’s on the East Coast, where post-punk and shoegaze’s revival dominate local venues, while at the same time providing a stunning-self portrait of Michelle Zauner’s soul.