I was reading through the Grammy nominations from last year’s music, and was happy to see Japanese Breakfast represented.
What I didn’t understand was the category.
Japanese Breakfast, aka Michelle Zauner’s band, was nominated for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album for her 2021 release “Jubilee.”
This album was my favorite album of 2021, listening to it almost daily over the summer. Japanese Breakfast wasn’t new to me. I was already a fan of the song “Everybody Wants to Love You” off the 2016 album Psychopomp, along with their 2019 cover of “Head Over Heels”, originally performed by Tears For Fears.
When I heard about this album coming out, I started listening to more of her work, including picking up her best selling novel “Crying in H-Mart”. That’s the interesting thing about the Grammy nomination for Best New Artist — this is the third album released by Zauner, and she’s definitely not a new artist.
That says something about the biggest awards in music, that many musicians who produce multiple albums are essentially invisible until they reach the Grammy radar. Perhaps, though, the Grammy’s are the musical version of Major League Baseball, and “Jubilee” represents the call for Japanese Breakfast to the big leagues.
Something definitely changed for Zauner between her early work in 2016/17 and her work now. The work now is more polished, less raw, and she’s starting to find her voice and trust her abilities. In 2021 she released “Jubilee”, released her best-selling memoir, and released the soundtrack to the video game Sable. That’s an impressive year for any artist, and a great way to ensure you are fully on the Grammy’s radar.
All of the attention is well-deserved. If there’s an album that I could tattoo on the soul of my 2021 heart, it would be this album. The guitar solo at the end of “Posing For Cars” would be the comforting sound that keeps that heart beating.
The album itself opens with the song “Paprika”, which I heavily relate to. In the song, Zauner sings about the rush of being able to produce her music for her fans, while lamenting that alone, it feels like dying.
That opens to an album about an artist in an unsteady relationship. The hit single “Be Sweet” is an upbeat, 80s style song where Zauner sings to her partner in an almost forceful way to make things up to her, allowing her to believe in something. I should note that most of her songs are written from a different character perspective than her own, and this song was originally written to be offered to someone else, before she claimed it as her own.
“Kokomo, IN” is one of my favorite songs on the album, though I feel I could say that about every track. This one is a relaxing ballad where Zauner tells the story of a high school boy saying bye to his sweetheart as she leaves town.
“Slide Tackle” is the next track, and again, one of my favorites. The saxophone solos in this add an uplifting feel to a song that talks about people who are predisposed to darker thoughts, constantly slide tackling their mind and wrestling in the dark, as Zauner writes it.
“Posing in Bondage” is a solid mid-album track, and a creative play on words. The song is a slow jam that focuses on the word “Bondage”, which is a highly sexualized word. In this song, Zauner is describing “Bondage” as being tethered to another human being, and describes the world as being divided into two people: Those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to. The song finishes on an uplifting note
The song “Sit” is inspired by Tears For Fears, and tells a story of controlled desire. The sound in this is definitely one of the more unique sounds on an album filled with many different styles. Zauner described in an interview with Apple Music that the chorus reminds her of heaven, and the verses of hell.
In “Savage Good Boy”, Zauner flips the traditional gender roles, telling a story of a “Savage Good Boy” with a partner at home waiting up. Her ability to make money absolves her from questioning, and her bad behavior is a necessary strain in the stakes to win the race. There’s a contingency where the two of them live in a bunker, dining on their surplus with the city under water, and tasked to repopulate as the last ones standing. Her partner, however, would rear the children as the necessary stakes in the race to live.
“In Hell” is a song that Zauner wrote about the events of putting her dog to sleep, and how that brought on thoughts of her mother passing away. Her hell is finding someone to love, but she can’t have, see, or feel the subject she’s signing about. She can’t unsee what two shots did, and how clinical death looks.
One of the most beautiful songs on the album is “Tactics”, which might be in my top three, right after Posing For Cars and Paprika. Zauner produces a surprisingly feel-good ballad about a broken relationship where the singer walks with life beating on, aching for others with love that stops short, after having to move a great distance to separate from the previous subject of her love.
The album wraps with my favorite song of 2021, “Posing For Cars.” After an album telling tales of struggling relationships, this song tells of how two people can love each other in different ways. In an album with songs like “Be Sweet” and “Savage Good Boy” having Zauner speaking from more of a position of power, this one opens with her asking her partner “Don’t make me beg you just ’cause you can.” She wonders how her partner could ever conceive how truly barren she can be, or her adolescent heart skipping beats. Zauner describes herself as a hollow root pushing through and the empty space inside the room, while describing her partner as someone with love that grows full and firm beneath, without a festered thought, without an emerald want, and with a single slow desire.
The final word comes with four minutes left in the song, building to the guitar solo that wraps up the album so well. I read somewhere that Zauner originally turned to someone else to write that solo, before taking on the task herself. The solo isn’t overly complex, slowly building to a crescendo at the end of a near-seven minute slow burn song to wrap up the album.
There’s something about that which I found inspiring in 2021. On the creative side, I was spending most of 2021 trying out my own writing styles, and getting back into the routine of writing full-time after a few years of scaled-back work. In that time, I started to doubt my own writing abilities, and got to the point where I believed my site would be better with someone else doing the main writing. At this point, I feel like my prospect writing is starting to return as the strength I always had, but in a more polished and experienced way.
That’s the argument for Japanese Breakfast as the Best New Artist. Michelle Zauner has had previous albums and experience in this industry, but her work on “Jubilee” was a new level, fueled by the risk taken with self-confidence.
In an ironic “I want to be best friends with Michelle Zauner” moment, she describes in the Song of the Day video below about writing “Posing For Cars” in the woods in Pennsylvania on a “productive mushroom trip”, just “being soft and pondering life.” I had a similar experience in the summer of 2020, in the woods of Georgia on a productive marijuana trip, being soft and pondering life, and that day led to a large portion of The 10th Anniversary Prospect Guide. There’s nothing like smoking an entire joint and walking into the woods with no direction planned, no urgency to return, and nothing but nature to take in as you get re-connected with your inner monologue.
As I followed Zauner closely this past year, I was inspired to drive my work to a new level, and maintain that level across multiple projects. I started viewing “Pirates Prospects” as my version of “Japanese Breakfast.” Knowing that she was able to push through and reach a new level in her career, despite battling through so much pain and heartbreak along the way, gave me the hope that I’ll be able to push through and do the same.
I feel that’s the value of artists in any format: To provide inspiration through relatable stories and examples. Sometimes all we need as humans is just the comfort of knowing that our problems are not unique, and that other people have gone through similar and made it out fine the other side. For me, “Japanese Breakfast” was a big source of hope in 2021.
I’ll leave you with this KEXP performance, which has some amazing live versions off of this album.
Check out Pirates Prospects today for coverage from John Dreker of the Pirates’ international signings.
This Week on Pirates Prospects
Song of the Day
Songs of the Week
If you’re looking for new music, I’m adding more sections to the Saturday music themed First Pitch. Each week I’ll have ten songs, with a lot of new music, but some older favorites that I’m just getting around to. This week’s list worked out to a pretty nice mix by doing nothing but copying my last ten liked songs off Spotify.
Albums of the Week
Best New Album of the Week: The Weeknd – Dawn FM
Obscure Album Find of the Week: Bombadil – Hold On
Most Played Album of the Week: Leon Bridges – Gold Diggers Sound
This Week on First Pitch
TUESDAY: This Week on Pirates Prospects
WEDNESDAY: Site Updates
FRIDAY: Nolan Ryan
SATURDAY: Japanese Breakfast