Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp was one of the low-key highlights of 2016, a moving ode to love, sex and tragedy that had some of the best pop songwriting of the year. Its success was largely due to the intimacy of Michelle Zauner’s songs, whose raw intensity drew the listener in without undercutting the dreamy atmospherics. It’s only natural, then, that Zauner would choose to go bigger for the follow-up. Whereas Psychopomp claimed to deal with the sadness and messiness of everyday life, Soft Sounds from Another Planet is supposedly inspired by space and Zauner’s fascination with the cosmos. It’s an album with twice the ambition of its predecessor and evidence that Zauner’s songwriting gifts are only just starting to blossom.
Anyone familiar with the bright, urgent dream pop of Psychopomp (or the rawer, punkier leanings of Zauner’s old band Little Big League) will probably be surprised by “Machinist,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It speaks of digital love (pun sort of intended), telling a story about deeply-held feelings of love and affection for a machine. Whether this has to do with being stranded alone in space or with humanity’s increasing dependence on technology is up to the listener, but the song works on many levels, and Zauner’s voice, even though its robotic and Auto-tuned, still evokes deep emotions. In terms of artistic leaps forward, “Machinist” goes the furthest and is among the most successful, but Soft Sounds offers more than just a great single.
On the rest of the album, Zauner leaves behind the sound of her previous work in favor of something more kaleidoscopic. It still registers as dream pop or indie-pop (whatever that term means now), but it borrows elements of electronica (“Machinist”), Krautrock (the looping opener “Diving Woman”) and Spector-era girl groups (“Boyish”). Throughout, everything sounds bigger and more expansive than it has before, and though Zauner’s music was often praised for its insular nature, she doesn’t get overwhelmed by atmospherics here. Rather, she takes advantage of having more to work with this time around and makes music that’s grand without being lightweight or too wrapped up in its own pomposity.
Crucially, while Zauner’s music has gotten bigger, her lyrical concerns–while less inward-looking–are still very much grounded in the human experience. The depictions of awkward sexuality and raw emotion are still here, just framed in a different context. “Road Head” is a piece of romanticized suburban ennui, a well-worn concept executed as beautifully as possible. “Boyish,” meanwhile, touches on dysmorphia while also containing a clever turn of phrase about oral sex. The statements are personal, just presented in a grand and sweeping manner. That’s a delicate balance to pull off convincingly, but Zauner more than carries herself well.
Psychopomp’s subject matter gave it a tinge of darkness, something that Soft Sounds doesn’t make as obvious. The raw pain that permeated that album has dissipated somewhat, but an existential dread remains. Importantly, though, Zauner’s creativity isn’t tied to any singular event. She’s a songwriter with big ideas and the capability to deftly express them, something that she does to great effect here.