CHRIS REVIEWS: Japanese Breakfast, at Islington Assembly Hall (May 2018)

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a gif from the video for "road head"

a gif from the video for "road head"


"Sometimes she leapt from speaker to speaker. Sometimes she sat on the front of the stage. This one time she looked at me and smiled and I died."

Your voice in the night / Sing me to sleep / Soothe this insomnia / Haunted dreams, stages of grief / Repressed memories / Anger and bargaining / Your embrace, healing my wounds / Teach me to breathe / Teach me to move / PTSD, anxiety / Genetic disease / Thanatophobia

- Lyrics from "Til Death", a song from Soft Sounds from Another Planet

Japanese Breakfast. The name of a band and of a girl. Michelle Zauner’s mother got diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and in going home and tending to the gradual and complete loss of her mother, Michelle transformed herself. She dropped out of her band at the time and adopted the name Japanese Breakfast, a pleasingly ridiculous combination of asian fetish and true-blue americana. Her first album, Psychopomp, in its title song, features a recording of Michelle’s mother on the phone, after receiving her terminal diagnosis, repeating to her daughter the same word. “Gwenchana," she says. "Gwenchana.” This is Korean for, more or less, don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.

Japanese Breakfast released a new album not very long ago called Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Michelle described it as an album steeped in the aftermath of the aftermath of grief. She had spent the previous year, she said, dissociated from her experience in a way that felt like floating in space. She has also described the album as at one time wanting to be a sci-fi musical. On it there are songs about the death of celebrities, the victories of cruel men, and the etiquette of giving road head. There is, in a song called “Machinist,” an extended Blade Runner style prologue and an extended, exceedingly sexy, saxophone solo. She sings, for the most part, in the style of Thom Yorke, of Radiohead—which is to say that she uses her voice more as an instrument of meaning than a vehicle of understandable speech. After a few listens, though, and a few studies of her lyrics, you’ll get the hang of it. In the album's final song, “This House,” she channels Karen O in a softly strum acoustic number about music and family and time and loss. You won't have any trouble understanding her here. Perhaps because Michelle has found her way back to herself. Here, at the end, there is no longer any sense of floating in space or dancing with robots. There is only her voice and that guitar and it is everything you need.

Last night, Japanese Breakfast performed in London, at Islington Assembly Hall. She wore an embroidered jacket—its floral patterns perhaps inspired by the sort of drapes preferred by Marie Antoinette—along with terribly short shorts and the kind of tennis shoes that glow with each step. She sang songs about trauma and family and falling in love with a robot. She sang songs about death and guitars. Sometimes she leapt from speaker to speaker. Sometimes she sat on the front of the stage. This one time she looked at me and smiled and I died.

This one other time she put down her guitar and said, “This is the part of the show where I have to make sure my shorts are zipped up. Okay. Good. This next song is about marriage and what it means to have someone stay with you through the darkest of times.”

It is rare to encounter someone quite so buoyant and serious and playful and sweet and dedicated to an honest reckoning with the joy and pain and absurdity of love and loss and I have come, across time and space, to appreciate each encounter with such people all the more.

Somewhere someone once said, “You don't love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.”

I can't improve on that.