Japanese Breakfast, ‘realizes her own recovery’ on new album

Carina Vo/Contributing Writer

Healing is a process that’s far from perfect– it’s usually personal and there isn’t a formula that works for everyone. Michelle Zauner, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist operating under the moniker of Japanese Breakfast, realizes her own recovery on “Soft Sounds from Another Planet,” reaching as far as the cosmos for ways to cope while staying grounded.

Released on July 14 via Dead Oceans Records, the album was co-produced by Craig Hendrix and follows Japanese Breakfast’s “Psychopomp,” which addressed the passing of Zauner’s mother.

Throughout “Soft Sounds,” Zauner finds solace in her sonic growth. Some of “Psychopomp”’s synths and emo sensibilities are present, but “Soft Sounds” sheds the former album’s youthful energy, instead becoming more grandiose and more refined. While “Boyish” is a sweeping, orchestral reinvention of the Little Big League version, tracks like “12 Steps” build on humble strums or sauntering, simple riffs. It’s a key contrast that keeps ‘80s sax solos and swelling strings from sounding too corny in a modern context, even if they’re well executed.

The album’s first single, “Machinist,” perfectly balances Zauner’s pop-driven evolution and experimentalism, both lyrically and musically. Carried by a daunting disco beat, the track tells tales of falling in love with a robot, leaving Zauner’s “heart burning, hot enough for the both of us.”

And Zauner’s voice itself is a dynamic instrument, both far-reaching and restrained. Between autotuned moans and falsettos, she creates melodies that are unpredictably catchy, like on “Road Head,” which blends ‘90s emo with indie pop.

Much of “Soft Sounds” pays homage to past decades, especially with its Roy Orbison-esque arrangements and bittersweet ballads, like the title track. Yet songs are never overly referential or overwhelming with too-embellished instrumentation. There’s a careful balance between void and full, letting even the empty spaces speak volumes.

Through those spaces shine with stories of stamina that inspire Zauner’s own “Diving Women,” the Deerhoof-inspired opener that tells of the self-sufficient South Korean female divers called haenyo. On the acoustic-driven “This House,” women continue “playing guitar, cooking breakfast” despite past trauma. Even if it’s just in a physical sense like on “The Body is a Blade,” there’s a constant reminder to carry on.

“‘This House’ is my favorite track from the album because it starts off with soft, melodic sounds while Zauner’s voice builds up as she’s talking about how she’s changed,” Amanda Delgado, FIU student and psychology major said. “To me, it gives the album a sort of cathartic end.”

But Zauner does finally find hope on the beautiful “Till Death,” a slow-building thank-you ballad to her husband. She sings of enduring life’s most unfair side effects – PTSD, genetic disease – with her partner at her side.

It’s this method of storytelling that makes Zauner so impeccably poetic. She finds meaning in realistic details and in her own imagination. This, coupled with contemplative instrumentation, is what makes “Soft Sounds” so mindful about going through the motions. This album lets listeners savor the sweet and learn from the rotten and reminds them that living, much like healing, is its own process.

Image sourced by last.fm.

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