Given the current state of the world, it may feel odd to say that someone has had a “good” 2021, but if anyone has, surely it’s Michelle Zauner. The singer/songwriter/guitarist/mastermind behind Japanese Breakfast scored her first “win” in April with the release of Crying in H Mart, a critically acclaimed memoir about her mother’s fatal battle with cancer (you can see now why I put the word win in quotation marks) that earned rave reviews and debuted at the number two spot on The New York Times’ best-sellers list. In June, she released Jubilee, Japanese Breakfast’s highly-anticipated follow up to 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, which also received rave reviews and spawned “Be Sweet,” Stereogum’s song of the summer. Days after Jubilee’s release, the film rights to Crying in H Mart were picked up by MGM subsidiary Orion Pictures, and it was announced that Zauner would be working on the adaptation herself. Not content to merely flourish as a musician, author, and screenwriter, she also dabbled in the gaming world, composing the score to open world adventure title Sable. So yes, pandemic, social unrest, and general sense of national malaise notwithstanding, I’d say that Zauner has had a pretty good year so far.
Japanese Breakfast rode into Brooklyn Steel with that positive energy on Saturday, October 16th, the third of four sold out shows at the New York venue. The good vibes started with opening act Luna Li, a precocious Canadian singer-songwriter bursting with talent. Sporting the biggest, brightest smile I’ve ever seen on an opening act, Li was the only person in the building who could come close to matching the multi-hyphenate Zauner in terms of aptitude, showing off her skills on guitar, violin, and, of course, vocals. Indie rock artists are not always the most technically gifted vocalists, but Li has a true instrument — silky yet solid, her voice helps ground her dreamy arrangements but also goes down ridiculously smooth. Part of the appeal of live music is watching the performers sweat and pour forth an impossible amount of effort unattainable by mere mortals. But Li, on the other hand, dazzled the crowd by making everything she did look so easy, and won them over not by projecting nonchalance, but through boundless enthusiasm and infinite gratitude.
Japanese Breakfast matched Li’s excitement with joyous set-opener “Paprika,” which gave them an opportunity to flaunt the horn section and violinist they brought with them on tour to help bring the more orchestral Jubilee tracks alive. It also gave Zauner a reason to smack two huge gongs on either side of her after singing “ooooh, it’s a rush” towards the end of the song, which of course allowed the band to springboard into “Be Sweet.” The band’s visual aesthetic struck a celebratory tone, as well — Zauner donned a puffy white dress while the male members of the band sported some variation of a white button up, jacket, and tie. It was a far cry from the more utilitarian look of their Soft Sounds era, but not stuffy either; instead, they looked like the world’s most adventurous wedding band.
There was some sense of tension in Japanese Breakfast’s set between the lushly arranged pop songs from Jubilee (they played all but two of the album’s 10 tracks) and the more straightforward, shoegaze inspired work from their earlier albums, a natural consequence of the band’s unlikely evolution from lo-fi Philly scenesters to “big indie” rock stars. While some may view the group’s embrace of auxiliary musicians as a betrayal of some kind of indie rock ethos, their breathless performances of even the most delicate and intricate Jubilee tracks demonstrated that working with strings and horns were meant to be as much of a challenge for Zauner as an opportunity. She isn’t using these elements to transform the band. Instead, she’s slinging them over her shoulder and dragging them towards the group, forcing them to comply with her vision. This move away from texture and bass towards treble and melody left one or two songs feeling a little thin, but more often than not it gave the audience a kind of secondhand satisfaction as they watched Zauner try to put together this stylistic and tonal puzzle, which included a song from Sable and a Dolly Parton cover to boot.
It should be noted, though, that Japanese Breakfast can still be a hell of a rock band when the song calls for it. “Savage Good Boy” was stripped of its pitch-shifted vocals and electronic bleeps and bloops to create a chugging yet tender ode to the inherent selfishness of love, while Peter Bradley’s shimmering guitars on “Road Head” and “Body Is a Blade” got the audience to move as much as the danceable beats of “Slide Tackle” or “Be Sweet.” The group closed their opening set with a version of “Everybody Wants to Love You” that was so energetic and exuberant that it permanently ruined the studio version for me, while encore opener “Posing for Cars” provided an excellent showcase for Zauner’s own guitar work. Japanese Breakfast closed the show with “Diving Woman,” which struck me as odd since it always felt like much more of a tonal table setter to me than a big, bring-the-house-down climax. Well, there’s a reason they’re on stage, and I’m not — watching Zauner and her bandmates whip up the dreamy, distorted churn of “Diving Woman” was one of the most thrilling live music experiences I’ve ever had, a truly transportational moment that I found myself hoping would never end.
Much of the last decade was filled with overtly optimistic music that tried to implore listeners to be happy. The mistake such music made was that it assumed joy could be bestowed upon people, or that they could be persuaded to it. Japanese Breakfast did not make this same mistake — instead, they demonstrated that joy is worked for like a runner’s high, and tried to sonically lift us towards that state. It certainly left me feeling good — but I doubt it compares to the rush they felt, and the rush they will feel, as their charmed year marches on.