Album Review: Japanese Breakfast aspires to be happy on ‘Jubilee’

The indie rocker’s third record is a good record from a band within an inch of greatness.

A band on the rise for the better part of a decade, the return Japanese Breakfast feels overdue. While the band fronted by Korean-American singer-songwriter and author Michelle Zauner hasn’t released an album in four years, it hasn’t even been two since they last released music (two-standalone tracks in 2019, “Essentially” and “Head Over Heels”). Billed as a return to joy following two albums detailing the death of Zauner’s mother from cancer in 2014, the album is fittingly more celebratory than previous outputs, even if “jubilant” feels like an overstatement.

The record kicks off with the regal but funky opener “Paprika,” where Zauner reflects on new-found fame over a zesty march. The track feels almost serendipitous given how much more successful this record already is and will be compared to her previous, and it’s budding up on the tracklist against her biggest hit to date: “Be Sweet.” That track, easily one of the best of the year, is an indie-pop confection as sugary as her romantic request.

Cracks in Jubilee’s veneer begin to show on its third track, “Kokomo, IN,” where Zauner’s unpolished vocals leave her melodies unsupported and the lyrics indecipherable. It’s a repeated issue where vocal lines get dropped and nasally twangs overpower other elements of the band’s sound. And on stripped tracks like Kokomo, it’s even more glaring. By contrast, however, the album highlight “Slide Tackle” shines thanks to its shimmering guitar lines and brass backing track coloring most of the sound. It’s an odd flaw, given that a talented musician like Zauner could remedy it with a little focus and practice.

The record’s thematics also come off as surprisingly nebulous. With a title like ‘Jubilee,’ the moments of true, unqualified joy are fleeting, with lyrics detailing the struggle of trying to be happy rather than relishing in it when it appears. The track with the most depressive title and subject, “In Hell,” sounds paradoxically breezy and light. While peppy instrumentals and dark lyrics make for a compelling and often effective result – Chromatica and After Laughter should instantly come to mind – it’s unclear just where the ‘Jubilee’ is actually being celebrated aside from tracks 1 and 2. “Posing In Bondage,” the album’s second single, doesn’t sound sexy or romanticized so much as it sounds conflicted and even lukewarm about the prospect of monogamy. This consistent conceptual misguiding or even deception isn’t obvious enough (or well-executed enough) to be presented without critique.

While there are a number of instances where the album could be improved, these flaws feel largely like nitpicks, higher-level details that are missed. Their accumulation is what makes the album a simply enjoyable experience as opposed to a shell-shocking one. The album’s closer “Posing For Cars” gets tantalizingly close to the tour de force finish that it clearly is aspiring to, but comes in just a bit short, like the ending was planned and given to the song before it was earned.

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