Review Summary: Lost in spaaaaace
The best thing about the new Japanese Breakfast
album might be the contextual tidbits, which is a bit of a backhanded compliment. Soft Sounds From Another Planet
is charming even in its half-successful space-y conception; allegedly, it was meant to be much more sci-fi heavy, but eventually saw itself grounded in Michelle Zauner’s day-by-day (in some cases, month-by-month, and so on) woes. The drawn-out opener, “Diving Woman”, sets the tone for this in a cleverly self-aware affirmation. It reaches for the stars from a bedroom window like Hope Sandoval, or a younger, naive Kendra Smith. Then, it descends into a lucid dream. Whereas previous full-length Psychopomp
, which saw Zauner coping with her mother’s passing in the clutch of cancer, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
has a more broad, non-chronological sense of urgency. Rather than an album that needed to be recorded
, her newest is a collection of songs that, each by their own accord, needed to be recorded.
Strewn with relatable anecdotes, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
is best accompanied by lyrical booklet. “Road Head”, for example, is about resorting to a sexual act in desperation to save a waning relationship; and, in doing so, one becomes more convinced in its inevitable failure. Much like the subject matter, the song feels a bit rushed. “This House” associates the muddled feelings we might feel for a past lover being misattributed: we actually just miss our past selves. The problem with Soft Sounds
is one of conveyance. Rarely do the whimsical songs really aim for the gut. The compositions seem much less remarkable when stripped of the context. It’s easy to love the idea of __ more than the actual sounds. In fairness, the sounds are still nice
, and even engrossing in bite-sized doses. “Boyish” (which previously appears on a Little Big League
album, Tropical Jinx
) resembles a magical, easily-missed moment where a girl sings a tired, cliched barroom tune with enough commitment, anyone lucky enough to take notice will see the space around her dissolve; then, the lyrics, despite maybe being written decades prior, are purposeful once more. And then, she’s gone.
When examined without consideration for the numerous backstories, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
feels like a bit of a hodgepodge of songs old and new. It’s fine that the context lends validity to the messages therein, but not that the album’s magic seems so reliant on it. Still, to give credit where some is due: Zauner, despite not being a technically impressive vocalist, manages to be versatile with little exertion. She sounds sultry and guarded in equal measure on the title track. On “12 Steps”, she sings with cheeky contempt. It’s not clear whether or not this is all to her credit as a vocalist, or to her credit as a producer alongside Craig Hendrix.
There are instrumental standouts, namely “The Body is a Blade” and “Diving Woman”, where seemingly last-minute ideas grant the songs a flukey sense of wonder. “Body is a Blade” and “Road Head" feature simple, repeated keyboard flourishes (for the nerds: a Roland Juno-6). Somehow, the lap steel guitar in “Boyish” occasionally teleports the song into a renaissance-era courtship, defying the fact that lap steel guitars didn’t exist in that timeframe. Stripped down title track “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” is a space-western song of lament, like what one could hope of hearing on Firefly
. The keyboard in “Till Death”, despite initially sounding banal, grants the song a cutesy surrender, like one’s daughter saying for the first time with 100-percent certainty that she is indeed in love with someone. This sentiment is blackened by the wordplay, which speaks of anxiety, grief, and fear of death. Sore thumb “Machinist” features auto-tuned vocals and robot fetishism, and it’s evident that this was the first song written specifically for the album with its initial sci-fi themes in mind.
It’s ironic that Soft Sounds From Another Planet
, whose inceptive theme of planetary travel was eventually scrapped, still seems destined to lose many of its listeners as minutes pass. One subtle, feather-light idea fades and gives way to another of a different mould. You are drawn in long enough to be slightly intrigued, but not long enough to become wholly invested before something else paints over the previous track’s MO. Little idiosyncrasies are too easy to forget, and yours truly wouldn’t have been able to recite them without the album playing repeatedly in the writing process (not a bad habit regardless, but in this case it was an absolute necessity). There are plenty of loveable moments, sure, but they tend to congeal like sand passing through your fingers.