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Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee

Society tends to equate great art with suffering. There are plenty of problems with this idea, not the least of which is how often the pursuit of great art is used to excuse shitty behavior. However, just as insidious is the implication that all worthwhile art has to have some sort of pain attached to it. This sort of attitude treats artists as commodities rather than people; their emotional and psychological well-being takes a backseat if it means that they’ve created something people have deemed to be “worth” the anguish. This dehumanization seems like the sort of thing that Michelle Zauner may be familiar with, given how closely her first two albums as Japanese Breakfast are tied to personal tragedies. Jubilee, by contrast, is about so much more than trauma; it’s a complex collection of emotions that seeks to find joy and bliss through artistic expression.

Perhaps the most distinct thing about Jubilee on first listen is the scope of its ambition. While Zauner came out of a DIY tradition both with her old band Little Big League and with the ramshackle charm of Psychopomp, her songs always seemed destined to sound grand. Jubilee fulfills that ambition right from the word “go,” with “Paprika”’s heady mix of synths, horns and harmonies. Each song on the album is brimming with new ideas and experiments, a sign that Zauner is refusing to hold anything back this time around. There are elements of dance-pop (“Be Sweet”) and sophisti-pop (“Slide Tackle”), while she also leaves room for the sort of earnest indie rock that garnered such a devoted following in the first place (“In Hell”, “Posing for Cars”). It’s an ambitious album made even more impressive by how meticulously crafted each song is. That the all-or-nothing approach that Jubilee takes is impressive, given how often albums of this scope fall flat. But what’s truly remarkable about Jubilee isn’t that it works; it’s that it works so fucking well.

Since she started recording, Michelle Zauner displayed a startling knack for writing great hooks and memorable, cutting lyrics, but Jubilee finds her working at a completely different level. Whereas many of Zauner’s earlier songs relied on frank expressions that appeared to be based on lived experiences, Jubilee works in a more fictional space. The speakers on many of these songs are characters, concepts developed by Zauner as a storyteller. “Posing in Bondage,” for example, comes from the perspective of one half of a monogamous couple, the “bondage” in the title being emotional, rather than sexual, in nature. “Savage Good Boy,” meanwhile, turns its gaze towards the avarice of modern capitalism as Zauner’s speaker sings of being one of the wealthy elite escaping the heat death of Earth: “And when the city’s underwater/I will wine and dine you in the hollows/On a surplus of freeze dried food.” As important as Zauner’s lyrics are (and given that she’s also written a New York Times bestseller, it’s safe to assume that words are very important to her), what’s also striking is how those words match up with each song. The bouncy pop of “Be Sweet,” for example, masks the desperation of the speaker who isn’t entirely sure how their opposite number actually feels. “Posing for Cars,” on the other hand, cuts to the core with the words that aren’t said; the song functions as a call-and-response between Zauner’s vocals and her guitar, and it closes with a solo that is among the most emotionally cutting things she’s ever recorded. Each song on Jubilee feels like a challenge that Zauner puts to herself and the listener to come along with something different, and she pulls it off at every turn.

If nothing else, Jubilee is confirmation that Michelle Zauner is a great artist regardless of the context. Too often, we as listeners will allow ourselves to value art based on biographical info or narratives rather than on what is placed in front of us. Jubilee refreshingly requires no narrative to justify its existence; it exists as an album, a collection of ten brilliant songs that may have some meaning for Zauner personally, but can also be interpreted by the listener based on their own perception. The value of art may be a subjective matter, but I’m sure that many will find value in a beautifully-composed album like Jubilee on its own terms.

Japanese Breakfast’s long-awaited third album is about so much more than trauma; it’s a complex collection of emotions that seeks to find joy and bliss through artistic expression.
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Blissful Expression
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