Julianna Pijar / Gavel Media

'Jubilee' by Japanese Breakfast Paints a Complicated Picture of Joy

After a pandemic and a memoir in the three years since their last release, Japanese Breakfast is back. Jubilee, the band's third album, follows frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s newfound acceptance of her mother’s cancer and death in 2014. The band’s first album, Psychopomp, and their second album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, follow Zauner’s path of grief from the loss of her mother: the former was written to work through Zauner’s emotions while her mother was dying, and the latter was written shortly after her death. Jubilee shows Zauner in her final stage of grief and her ultimate decision to choose joy.

“Paprika” is the thesis of the album, professing all the glory and excitement of Japanese Breakfast’s return. Using horns, drums, and woodwinds, the first song creates a triumphant marching band feel to introduce the rest of the album. The title calls back to the film of the same name by Satoshi Kon, a science fiction movie that bends reality and dreams. This song resembles the soundtrack of a surreal parade that explains the joys of being a musician. Although this choice of instrumentation can at times be a bit overwhelming and excessive, it solidifies the theme of joy in the album.

The first single pre-released, “Be Sweet,” was originally written in 2018 with help of Jack Tatum from the band Wild Nothing. It takes inspiration from the 80s and 90s, seen in the poppy chorus and X-Files themed music video. This influence is clear in the catchy lyrics and underlying electronic beats and bass line, making it one of the best songs on the album. “Kokomo, IN” tells the story of a small town high school couple saying goodbye to each other, channelling the intensity of teenage emotions around a first love and first heartbreak. Implementing strings and a surf rock guitar sound, Japanese Breakfast takes the listener back to their teenage hormones and feelings of a love lost.

“Slide Tackle” puts Zauner’s experience with choosing joy back into focus as she writes about how trying to get her brain to be happy is similar to the physical move of a slide tackle in soccer. Starting with an electronic base, similar to others on the album, the song adds layers of guitar and drums, leading up to an unexpected saxophone in the middle that lessens the quality of the song and does not add much compositionally.

“Posing in Bondage” and “Sit” make up the breakdown in the middle of the album that focuses on the feeling of loss. The first four songs center on blatant euphoric joy, while the songs after grapple with tougher issues of love after loss. “Posing in Bondage” comes from a previously released Polyvinyl 4 track series in 2017, with this version being much slower and better developed in a way that strays away from the lo-fi feel of the original. The title refers to the bondage of monogamy and how people give up comfort and their joy for marriage, featuring a music video that shows the hollow feeling experienced after loss and takes place after the events of the video for “Savage Good Boy.” “Sit” integrates the straightforward guitar and is one of the darkest songs on the album, featuring a dark chorus and angelic verses. It portrays a grittier sound with distorted guitar under Zauner’s soft vocals.

Another pre-released single, “Savage Good Boy” shows how excessive joy can lead to greed by putting your happiness over others. This song works as a cautionary tale of a person who is wealthy and has fully given into greed. Zauner stars opposite Michael Imperioli in the music video as two people living in a billion dollar bunker. Indie music artist Alex G collaborated on this song, and the high squeaky vocals accompanying Zauner that are often present give the song a childish, whimsical sound.

The album then shifts to a softer tone with the darkest song on the album, “In Hell.” First released as a bonus track on their second album, it is about the agony of waiting for a loved one who is in a coma or headed toward an inevitable death to die. This pairs with the song “In Heaven,” off of Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which is about having to put one's dog down. This song sounds the most like Japanese Breakfast’s previous material and goes back to their indie rock roots.

“Tactics” begins with a string instrumental and transforms into a piano ballad that draws inspiration from Randy Newman and Bill Withers. It centers on her toxic relationship with her father and her guilt with the decision to walk away from him in a goodbye to their relationship. “Posing For Cars” shows the love between her and her husband, ending the album on a hopeful note. The guitar solo that fills the last four minutes gravitates away from the electronic and horn feel of the rest of the album, potentially signaling what is next to come for Japanese Breakfast.

Jubilee is fundamentally an album about joy and the complexities that come with it. Each song depicts a different type of joy, with “Savage Good Boy” showing excessive joy, “Paprika” portraying the upsides of being a musician, and “Slide Tackle” illustrating the process of forcing happiness onto oneself. While the other songs are not as clear cut, taken together they each show the gravity of losing someone and the change into a new person that follows. Japanese Breakfast incorporates horns and strings much more on this album than those in the past to represent happiness, which at times overpowers the songs. The album starts with the poppiest and most interesting songs and mellows out in the end. While the songs range in sound and content, they all show that Japanese Breakfast has chosen joy after being in a dark period for so long.

Favorite Tracks: “Be Sweet” and “Kokomo, IN” 

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