Japanese Breakfast (Dead Oceans, 2021)
“Hell is finding someone to love / And I can’t have you,” Michelle Zauner, lead singer and songwriter of indie-pop band Japanese Breakfast, intones in the eighth track of Jubilee, fittingly titled “In Hell.”
In this, Zauner is on sound theological footing. Indeed, all of Jubilee is shot through with this essentially religious insight: God is the source of all goodness, and all suffering is derived from God’s absence.
The album does not name God as the object of longing, but its central narrative is the narrative of the spiritual life: seeking the Beloved and suffering because the Beloved is gone. At times the object of Jubilee’s longing appears to be Zauner’s mother, whose tragic passing inspired her first album, Psychopomp. At other times the object appears to be a romantic partner or perhaps a friend. But in nearly every track, the feeling being expressed is “the awful feeling / I’m missing something I can’t place / Is that you?” (“Kokomo, IN”).
Of course, Japanese Breakfast is not the first band to take up this theme, nor the thousandth. Its ubiquity is proof of how fundamental it is. Just as, whether we know it or not, all joy is derivative of God, so all suffering is derivative of the only true suffering: God’s absence.
Jubilee’s dreamy soundscapes bring to bear that inexpressible sadness better than any pop record I’ve listened to this year. The lush, majestic production lends Zauner’s grief a dignity that saves it from excessive sentimentality. That and her fine voice make repetitive choruses like “Closeness / Proximity / I needed . . .” (“Posing in Bondage”) read not as a whine but as a sigh.
Filled with so many poignant images of suffering, the album ends with one of the finest images of the soul seeking God—in other words, of love—I have ever heard: “Just a single slow desire fermenting” (“Posing for Cars”).
This article also appears in the August 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 7, page 38). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.