May 2, 2016

LP: Japanese Breakfast - Psychopomp

Japanese Breakfast's debut album is required listening for all human beings.

The first time I listened to Psychopomp all the way through, it was raining, and I was on a bus to Brooklyn because I refused to part with the therapist I found when I lived there. The first time I saw Japanese Breakfast was in the back room at a crowded bar in Philadelphia (same day – it was a long one) and I was absolutely transfixed. Every aspect of the LP, and of Michelle Zauner, is pure magic. It’s unreasonable that one person is able to convey so much emotion in a breathy ooh and ahh, and that’s just one teeny aspect of one song. But I’m glad she’s doing it, because it's incredible.

Psychopomp should be required listening for all human beings. It’s sublime and cathartic and its complexity almost defies description. From the first minute, Zauner’s voice glides effortlessly between ethereal coos and gut-punching intensity. There are dancey riffs, lush instrumentals, soaring vocals and genre shifts all the way down. To listen to any one Japanese Breakfast track out of context will not necessarily provide a clear idea of Zauner’s mission, which I believe to be intentional. And with nine songs – or, realistically, eight songs and one intermission that deserves a write-up of its own (“Psychopomp”) – it’s by no means a long album, so its intimacy and musical diversity are accomplishments on their own.

Even on the most abstract of songs, Zauner has an uncanny ability to draw in the listener. “Jane Cum” is shocking, powerful darkness, and as the music swells with Zauner’s voice, you’ll be left breathless, though perhaps lacking total comprehension of what just happened. Meanwhile, “In Heaven” provides a first-person perspective to personal pain (It’s the first song, and it’s a great one, so buckle up). On “Heft,” you join Michelle as she tries to make sense of how to act around other people in the wake of grief, and with “Triple 7” – her last track – she reveals she’s still battling her demons. It’s an intensely personal, almost mournful album, in part (if not wholly) created for the loss of Michelle Zauner’s mother. I hope those who have shared her experience can gain something from Psychopomp. But if you haven’t, let me assure you: Anyone can discover an emotional connection to Japanese Breakfast. From start to finish, it’s captivating: a truly special album, and notable for being Zauner’s first solo project. It’s trippy and experimental; beautiful and affecting; grief-stricken and heartbreakingly real. I checked my phone notes to see a list of comparisons I made upon my first listen, and somehow, in this order, I have “Shonen Knife, Madonna, Grimes, Bjork, Real Estate, Explosions in the Sky, Postal Service.” That’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Today, it’s rare for artists to release albums that demand to be heard in full, and Psychopomp is undeniably one of those. And the older gentleman holding an iPad in the middle of the Japanese Breakfast audience is Zauner’s father taping the performance, so try not to be rude about it, Sophy.


Listen to Japanese Breakfast on bandcamp.

Sophy Ziss is a writer and feelings-haver based in Philadelphia. Tweet pets and music recommendations to @sophyish.