The first Japanese Breakfast album, Psychopomp, was an anomaly, a necessary funnel for Michelle Zauner's emotions as she tended to her ailing mother. Its surprising success was double-edged; vastly surpassing the popularity of her previous band, Little Big League, Zauner's artistic triumph nevertheless required her to relive the trauma of her mother's death daily, both onstage and in interviews.
On Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Zauner attempts to thread a very tricky needle by once again tapping into the deeply personal core that marked her debut while keeping a minimum safe distance between herself and her music. As the early press story around the album goes, she turned to the world of science fiction and the cosmos.
First single "Machinist," about a robot romance, is the most fully formed example of this vision, complete with slinky bass-lines and auto-tuned vocals. Despite its jarring departure from the spritely indie-pop of Psychopomp, it's one of the record's high points. Elsewhere, though, the sci-fi influence is more oblique (if it exists at all), as Zauner rifles through issues of identity and past relationships (and recordings — versions of both "Road Head" and "Jimmy Fallon Big!" appeared on 2014's American Sound EP) as she tries on a host of musical guises, from lo-fi prog-rock to classic crooner balladry, complete with sweeping strings.
Zauner's search for a new voice should be a mess, but while the music is sometimes unfocused, her vocals a tad thin and her range minimal — she often strains to hit the notes she's written for herself — her quick wit, masking vulnerability (see "Boyish," where she sings "I can't get you off my mind, I can't get you off in general") remains as sharp as ever. It proves to be the true heart of the album, the tie that binds her lofty ambitions together.
Zauner could have carved herself a pretty good career knocking out albums of lo-fi pop. Instead, she reveals a heretofore-unheard level of ambition as she expands her pop palette and worldview. In trying to put a wall between herself and her audience, she's opened a new, far more revealing side to her music and herself. (Dead Oceans)