What happens once an artist breaks free of their own self? When all preconceived notions or established ideas that an artist has spent their entire career building up are suddenly smashed into tiny little pieces? Often, it can spell disaster for those who don’t realise that they don’t have the depth of musicality or lyrical wisdom that they had thought. Often, they make the jump without realising this, and by that time it’s too late to turn back.
This is the first of many mid-life crises that any artist goes through: you’ve made your mark, but now it’s time to explore new sounds. People know who you are and what you’re about. They know what you sound like and what kinds of chords you favour and what topics you tend to write about. You’ve been figured out, and it is time to change.
On Jubilee, the third album from Michelle Zauner under her moniker Japanese Breakfast, the answer to the first artistic mid-life crisis appears to be ‘go big or go home’. If Psychopomp was characterised by its lo-fi charm, increase the production value exponentially. If Soft Sounds from Another Planet delicately balanced indie rock and pop, blow out the arrangements with orchestration and elements of funk, dance, electronica, and metal.
The dreamy minor chords of ‘Kokomo, IN’ get to rub up against the vibrant pizzicato violin plucks with slow-burning aplomb. The triumphant horn arrangements of the title track bring you into a celebration worthy of the album’s title. ‘Be Sweet’ moves with an infectious groove propelled by a relentlessly bouncy bass. ‘Slide Tackle’ gets its kicks through a sax solo, while ‘Sit’ gets to swim in shoegaze textures of fuzz. The palate that Zauner plays with is wider, but it never distracts from her laser focus or her ear for razor-sharp hooks.
By the time we reach the end, in the form of the album closer ‘Posing for Cars’, the journey is complete, but the memories linger. Zauner has an uncanny ability to send you out through new and exciting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking adventures and then giving you the Irish goodbye by slipping out. ‘Triple 7’ and ‘Here Come the Tubular Bells’ are spectral ghosts ending their respective albums, but ‘Posing for Cars’ ends Jubilee in style: nearly seven minutes of ever-crescendoing music that starts gently and builds higher and higher until thunderous drum fills, swirling synths, and biting electric guitar swallow you whole. Just as it reaches its peak, everything falls away, leaving you in a state of exhaustion and exhalation.
It’s the Zauner special: a somewhat unexpected but joyfully robust burst of positive and negative feelings that can be ragged, imperfect, and delightfully bizarre but retaining a certain warmth and immediacy that invited you in and encourages you to think about the way you live your own life. It has the ability to enthral and mesmerise in equal measure, but also to emphatically pulverise. It’s deep, but that deepness is rewarded with a truly one of a kind artist.
Jubilee is what happens when a one of a kind artist is working at the top of her game. Unencumbered by any need to establish her style or voice, Zauner instead shoots for the moon and lands high above just about anyone else in terms of quality songwriting and exciting progressive musicality. It’s her best album yet, and it will be an incredibly high bar to pass. I’m sure we’ll all be waiting to see how, not if, she does.