For Michelle Zauner of the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, this year has been a triumph. Her newly released book “Crying in H Mart,” a memoir detailing the period following the loss of her mother to cancer, debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times Best Sellers list — a feature film adaptation is on the way. With the band’s latest, a radiant new album titled Jubilee, Zauner continues to reach new heights, arriving on the other side of grief with her most ambitious work to date.
Previous Japanese Breakfast albums excavated pain and trauma with both softness and ferality through a diverse sonic palette of Zauner’s musical influences. Noisy Pacific Northwest rock and shoegaze could be found sitting alongside gentle numbers of sci-fi and classic pop balladry. On its quest to embody happiness, Jubilee comes equipped with a similar range, though it’s all brought together by a bigger emphasis on pop. As a result, the music is more immediate than it’s ever been before; the hooks are stickier, the highs are higher.
From the sound of things, happiness is clearly in reach. Newly fleshed out arrangements with gorgeous string sections bring out the most in Zauner’s songs. On the Satoshi Kon-inspired opener “Paprika,” the feeling of joy leaves her dreams and enters reality. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers/ To captivate every heart?” Zauner asks, wading through uncertain waves of synthesizer noise before the song lights up like a carnival with regal horns, glowing keyboard flourishes and a marching beat. Most of Jubilee is like this, as Zauner puts it in the song’s refrain, “a rush,” like Dorothy opening the door to Oz and witnessing color for the first time.
The album makes a convincing case for Zauner’s pop star potential, showcasing some of her strongest vocal performances. The immediate standout is “Be Sweet,” a rocket powered ’80s electro pop banger armed with what’s likely to be the catchiest, most explosive chorus you’ll hear all year. Zauner’s vocals are bright in the mix, star power practically flowing out of her as she makes her demands for affection.
“Slide Tackle” sounds tailor-made for the club, its dreamy, driving pulse providing the perfect backdrop for Zauner’s singing to turn weightless and airy as she wrestles her demons and embraces satisfaction. Over the span of its brief 2 ½ minutes, “Savage Good Boy” manages to create and tear down the irony-drenched persona of rich male billionaire supervillain, a compelling narrative feat comparable to anything off last year’s pop album of the year, After Hours.
As it turns out, the feeling of joy is not so simple. Jubilee captures the nuances of happiness by interacting with it in different ways, portraying the euphoria of being caught up in the moment as well as the intense longing in its absence. The gentle sway and light feeling captured by the slide guitars of the breezy “Kokomo, IN” can just as easily turn into the abrasive noise and emptiness of “Sit.” Near the end of the record, “In Hell” reminds of the pain that came before, as Zauner returns to the scene of her mother’s hospitalization, the song’s warm melody and plinky keys masking some truly depressing lyricism. “Hell is finding someone to love/ And I can’t have you,” she admits, the rising arrangement around her pulling her towards the light as she moves past grief.
The spacious centerpiece “Posing in Bondage” best exemplifies the connection between happiness and pain at the heart of the album. There’s distance between Zauner and her desires, between the spectral instrumental and her vocals. Yearning for “closeness and proximity,” these two ends collide in a colorful frenzy of dance and frenetic energy. The push and pull of the track is intense; while it’s not exactly “happy,” it’s entirely entrancing.
With Jubilee, Zauner understands the value of a commodity like joy. She crafts a record that isn’t purely interested in having a good time. It’s an ode to all the highs and lows that come with embracing a better state of mind — happiness in its most authentic form.
Vincent Tran is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].