Japanese Breakfast is perhaps one of my favorite musical discoveries in a long time, mostly having to do with the honesty and emotion that Michelle Zauner puts into her songs. Her last major project, Little Big League, was put on hold back in 2014 when she received the news of her mother’s illness, which makes the title and the dedication assigned to her debut album Psychopomp (a term in greek mythology for a guide that leads souls to the underworld) as Japanese Breakfast all the more intimate and somber. Initially a collection of raw, unfinished basement recordings, they have now all been revamped with the help of Ned Eisenberg, and are now a beautiful remembrance of her mother as well as a gorgeous testament to dream pop.
The true beauty of Psychopomp is the way in which the album’s tracks are organized, which brilliantly act as a gradual, emotional immersion into Michelle Zauner’s state of mind. After the initial solemness of the title, the colorfully stunning opener “In Heaven” lets you off easy – considering its grave subject matter – mixing together melancholy lyrics with hazy, shimmering dream pop. The album feels indulgent immediately after, as the opener is then followed with a handful of pure, shimmering garage pop songs. “The Woman That Loves You” is another hazy, brilliant dream pop tune, playing around more with the use of synth and similar instrumentation. Zauner’s vocals sound impassioned, pained, and relieved all at once, gorgeously mixing into the gauze of the chorus. “Psychopomp,” the title track, marks the sharp half-way point of the album, shifting gears dramatically with its somber instrumentation as well as the heart wrenching insertion of her mother’s recorded voice. Though some tracks like “Jane Cum” and “Heft” feel instrumentally colorful on the surface, Zauner’s pain is heightened through the vocals and lyrics, and leaves her condemning this awful power that has taken over the past few years of her life. After another instrumental track, we are led seamlessly left with the absolutely stunning track “Triple 7,” which has some of the most poetic lyrics of the entire album, as well as a stunning vocal performance.
Though the album does deal with loss, more of the essence of Psychopomp has to do with the way in which warmth and emotion are openly expressed, and the way it functions within itself. The way in which Zauner can take a simple melody and vocal line and transform them into something textured and dazzling is simply mesmerizing, and no other track but the brilliantly catchy single “Everybody Wants to Love You” is more representative of this idea. It’s bright, simple, and effective, showing off Zauner’s abilities in writing incredibly catchy riffs. Though the lyrics are repetitive, it never sounds forced or smothered, and when the instrumentals all converge into the bridge, it sounds absolutely euphoric. Another thing that makes this particular debut especially attractive is that it spends equal amounts of time introducing the specific sound as well as doing everything in its power to feel like something that one can relate with. Due to Zauner’s intense ability, the album ends up feeling like a emotional scale that equally takes grief and hope in both hands, ironically leaving the listener feeling more optimistic than anything else.
photo by Julian Master