There’s a moment near the end of the video for “Everybody Wants to Love You”, one of the singles from Japanese Breakfast’s acclaimed 2016 record, Psychopomp, where singer Michelle Zauner shreds a guitar solo on the hood of an 18-wheeler. The video delights in gleeful racial playfulness: Zauner, dressed in traditional Korean garb, pounds out the solo, drinks aggressively, rides on the back of motorcycles, and generally explodes stereotypes of “traditional” Asian culture and its more recent “model minority” tropes. Even in the traditional Korean hanbok, Zauner needs be no symbol of politeness, economic success, or upwardly mobile immigrant sensibilities; she just rocks.
Zauner often operates in two places at once. Rarely does her universe as Japanese Breakfast make sense in Manichean terms. She deals in “both/and” instead of “either/or.” Zauner wrote the sprawling, shoegaze-y, hook-filled Psychopomp in the wake of her mother’s death. It doesn’t sound like grief, even as her mother stares out at the viewer from the album’s cover art. And so, Japanese Breakfast returns with her follow-up to Psychopomp, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, a record supposedly about space that very much takes place here on Earth. The promotional materials for the record and its first single, “Machinist”, a song about falling in love with a robot, talk about how Zauner began to see the cosmos as an allegorical place of healing. Its icy, Auto-Tuned pop seems to show Japanese Breakfast seeking exactly this escape velocity. Nowhere on Soft Sounds from Another Planet does Zauner try to recapture the specific charms and energies of Psychopomp.
Of course, for all the language about escape – Zauner apparently found inspiration in the Mars One project of colonizing Mars – Soft Sounds from Another Planet vests in the material world. Lead track “Diving Women” refers to the historically matriarchal structures of the Korean province of Jeju, where women divers came to dominate its fishery. It’s an uplifting allegory, Zauner singing: “I want it all.” It’s followed by “Road Head”, a sultry look at a different type of diving: the unsatisfying blight of a turnpike blow job. Lyrically, the song ends in the cosmos – its last lyrics are “lightless miles, miles, miles” – but it begins in the most lurid and banal of American settings, the ugly transactional quality of roadside sex. Zauner doesn’t flinch from either the stars or America’s cultural pornography. She wants it all and gets it, even when the giving and the getting are the problem.
Despite its sprawling philosophical ambitions, most of the arrangements on Soft Sounds from Another Planet begin with simple guitar progressions. In comparison to Psychopomp, Soft Sounds… appears more discrete in its shape, with less propulsive mania at its core. If Zauner poured the grief over her mother’s death into the Psychopomp’s pop, then she grows more existential here. The sadness has a different shape, a different color – deep without being maudlin. On the delightful “Boyish”, Zauner channels a sweeping Roy Orbison arrangement. The lyrics devastate: “I can’t get you off my mind/ I can’t get you off in general,” impotence used first as metaphor and then as crippling reality. “I want you, and you want something more beautiful,” she sings unblinkingly. The duality remains inescapable: You can either handle it, or you can’t.
Soft Sounds… isn’t quite as playfully subversive as Zauner’s big-rig guitar solo on “Everybody Wants to Love You”, but her work as Japanese Breakfast continues to draw its energy from transgressing both the expectations of herself and her audience. The rocking “12 Step” adopts its title from addiction recovery, but its second line — “12 steps into the smoking bar I found you” — leaves the listener heading toward the disaster, not away from it. For a record with its aspirations in the allegorical freedom of the cosmos, Zauner returns over and over to the painful architecture of this world. There’s beauty in it, too, this seeing more clearly, this holding of two things in mind at once. There are no bromides or reassuring aphorisms here. Two things: She wants it all, and we get it.
Essential Tracks: “Boyish”, “Diving Women”, and “Till Death”