Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Reviewed by: Ziggy Merritt
In the video for “Road Head”, Michelle Zauner, the mind behind the experimental pop project, Japanese Breakfast, goes on a hypnotic road trip with a 7” tall monster, which ends in violence as the beast is shot, skinned, and set on fire. Something macabre and surreal is almost expected from Zauner at this point; an artist who herself has rarely shied away from exploring profound darkness in her writing. It’s the music wrapped around that writing that acts almost like a lure, attracting listeners to that same plane of existence. On her sophomore release, Soft Sounds from Another Planet that plane extends straight into the stars.
Imbued within the music and in one particular case, the lyrics themselves, are an identifiable attraction to science fiction that expresses itself in the sometimes ambient structures of the tone. Where Zauner’s debut factored in heavy doses of lo-fi and jangle pop, the immediate follow-up is noticeably more downtempo with an extended if still restrained focus on synth elements. Even just the first few tracks, both “Diving Woman” and the aforementioned “Road Head” are practiced in entrancing an audience with repetitive rhythms and bass lines.
Yet, as enticing as they might be much of the album’s strength lies in the more paced and structured second half. Starting off that half is “12 Steps,” which calls back the more direct punk influences on Psychopomp in a lo-fi glory that leads to a propulsive solo guitar bridge in the middle. “Jimmy Fallon Big” follows as one of the album’s most introspective with layers of cosmic synths seeping out of every pore. But it might be the music box melody and mournful brass instrumentation of “Til Death” that crowns the album as one of Zauner’s most heartbreaking compositions. The directness of the lyrics, which name many of the fears and realizations that she has had to confront in the past two years alone are rendered with unexpected tenderness.
This is what has always identified her project, Japanese Breakfast, as a singularity. You could always throw around the terms lo-fi, shoegaze, punk, or downtempo, but there’s rarely a moment where Zauner isn’t flipping off the idea of a rigidly structured pop album. Sure, some of those moments of exploration don’t work quite so well. “Machinist” while unique in describing the chaotic relationship between a woman and a machine with bits of hammy vocoder feels wildly out of place. “Boyish” is also far too leisurely in its pacing to go anywhere exciting. Yet, it’s hard to find an artist that does these things; that puts grief, pain, fear, and longing into the foundation of an album and alchemize those abstractions into something positive.