Japanese Breakfast Soft Sounds From Another Planet

[Dead Oceans; 2017]

Styles: indie pop, synthpop, chamber pop, dream pop
Others: Beach House, Future Islands

Who cares what we talk about when we talk about love? Where Michelle Zauner’s justly acclaimed first album, Psychopomp, dealt with her mother’s death, Soft Sounds From Another Planet is an odyssey of that other staple of the psyche and of the pop world: romance.

But what if romantic love is not what we find when we go exploring? What if it’s not the only thing in the universe? What if it’s not the only thing worth talking about?

The question here goes unanswered. And maybe it’s unfair to ask, because in space, lovers are always star-crossed.

But indulge my moony ways for a moment — what else does outer space mean in music? Zauner’s interplanetary craft doesn’t have the zaniness of Lucia Pamela or even her Stereolab echo, though it gestures to Gwenno’s motorik pop. The identity politics of Afrofuturism aren’t apparent either (even if Zauner’s talked often in interviews of the influence of her Asian-American background). Instead, on Soft Sounds, space is the place for pop’s eternally lovelorn outsider, a paradoxical Martian landscape where being an outsider makes you feel part of an alien nation. As Zauner puts it, “It’s beautiful that you’re not alone in your pain — you’re not alone in your feelings.”

To journey to this place is to dive upwards — and the album opens with “Diving Woman,” a tribute to the Haenyeo, female Korean freedivers floating through galaxies of pearls and starfish on the ocean floor.

Where Psychopomp was about a journey as guide, Soft Sounds plunges into the weariness of ongoing grief and the cynicism of failed relationships, as well as the happiness of relationships that work, their capacity to provide a stable launching place. “Till Death” frames love as retrieving and relieving the horrors of contemporary politics and society, from cruel powerful men to PTSD and anxiety — love as Major Tom’s return journey. It’s true, and it’s also a questionable politics and a heavy burden for any emotion. Meanwhile, a sly final nod to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (as wedding chimes) recapitulates “Till Death’s” matrimonial melancholy while exorcising the ghosts of lovers past.

The many points of reference on display are (perhaps too) tasteful, understated — a constellation of Chromatics synth, a stargaze of 1960s chamber pop and of saxophone. Ultimately, Soft Sounds is an uneven experience, stylistically and in terms of (this listener’s) engagement. But still, in the shimmering hooky synthpop of “Machinist,” the Morrissey-esque lilt of “Boyish,” there are bright stars hanging in the firmament.

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