After a set of years that have been marked by misery — not only the global pandemic, but also the rampant corruption and malfeasance of the interlopers in the White House during the latter portion of the twenty-teens — I take the title of the new Japanese Breakfast album as a challenge of sorts. Michelle Zauner, who is Japanese Breakfast, did, too. She’s been very clear that she deliberately set out to create music from a foundation of joy for the new album, in part to shed the haze of grief that hung over her first two full-length releases as her own outfit. Jubilee isn’t exactly an unbroken ray of sunshine — I suspect Zauner’s intelligence is too prickly and engaged to take in her surrounding with pure positivity — but it sure feels good to listen to material this smart and snappy.
Jubilee is filled with sly indie pop, all of it pristine and lithe. The material is layered and worked to a fine sheen without eve feeling overly fussed over. The easy-groove modern disco “Be Sweet” is a perfect example, a kindred to the slickly produced pop experimentation on Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour while still feeling modestly dialed down. Zauner can take a song across just about any topography. There’s the buzzy storm rising of “Sit” and the acoustic gentleness that patiently swells with a intricate string arrangement and a flush of alternating melodies on album closer “Posing for Cars,” suggesting what might have happened if Hole kept maturing after the expansiveness of Celebrity Skin.
Part of pleasure of the album is the sense of humor and clarity of narrative voice Zauner brings to the songwriting. She approaches the ingenuity of Randy Newman at times, in both lyrics and melody, albeit with a very different finished sound. “Savage Good Boy” is a slab of satire about the pursuit of wealth, in part with fantasies about riding out the apocalypse in a tricked out bunker: “And when the city’s underwater/ I will wine and dine you in the hollows/ On a surplus of freeze dried food.” If “Kokomo, IN” sounds like Best Coast at their hammock-swinging breeziest, the lyrics imagining first love from the perspective of a Midwestern youth (“I’ll wait, passing time just popping wheelies/ And kicking round this flyover state/ Watching you show off to the world/ The parts I fell so hard for”) are drawn from the lineage of any number of storytelling songwriters from an earlier era.
It seems Zauner found exhilaration by pursuing her chosen art without boundaries, either those she imposed herself or the artificial parameters of stratified musical genres. Jubilee glows with the shimmer of creative freedom.