cw: discussion of grief, dissociation
Japanese Breakfast performed for the fourth time at Bar le Ritz on Sunday, October 8. As usual, their show cultivated an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort. While their debut record, Psychopomp, was steeped in childhood nostalgia, their latest release from the summer, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, represents an emotional and painful coming-of-age.
Lead singer Michelle Zauner reflects on her personal grief over her mother’s death on both albums. After releasing two records about it, Japanese Breakfast has refined the presentation of a haunting sense of melancholy.
The set began with the first track of Soft Sounds, “Diving Woman.” Zauner’s voice sounded like a whisper, breathy as if coming up for air, until she broke into the chorus. The crowd nodded along enthusiastically as the group weaved songs from both albums into their setlist. The band transitioned into an older favourite, “The Woman that Loves You.” The song’s chorus emphasized, “You should try to do as little harm as you can to the woman that loves you.” This song not only asked us to treat women with care, but also to lovingly celebrate all of the women in our lives.
They performed another highlight from Soft Sounds, “The Body is a Blade,” which is lyrically heavier with stretches of animated, lighthearted keyboard in the background. Zauner described the song as learning how to “dissociate and rely on your body to physically keep pushing forward in an attempt to survive.” She reminded listeners, “You’re alive, you have to keep moving.” The music parallels this mindset as the keyboard melody flits back and forth frantically, building a mood of desperation. The bass floods into the chorus which swells into a full, shining melody that warrants nothing but a ridiculous full body sway.
From Psychopomp, they performed “Jane Cum,” which has a particularly acute rise and fall. The live performance had an added level of intensity as Zauner paused to take a breath before shouting the lyrics, “Jane Cum, you swallow me whole,” into the mike. She has a high, piercing voice that echoed in the small, dimly-lit venue. The synthesizer kept ringing at the end of a track, and I couldn’t help but feel deflated as Zauner sang the last note.
Another highlight was “Boyish,” a track from Soft Sounds that Zauner told us was her dream slow dance song for an 80s romantic coming-of-age film. The soft, shoe-gazey guitar purrs as she sings, “Your boyish reassurance is not reassuring.” She then proceeds to yearn for him in the chorus, singing, “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general.”
Halfway through the set Zauner announced, “We’ll do the sad songs now and dance later.” There was a serious shift in tone as she sombrely transitioned into “This House.” The song introduced a series of questions: “And where are you? What if one day you leave?” Every line that Zauner cried created a sense of urgency, which intensified and gave way to a very intimate frustration that clawed at your chest. She ended by crying out, “my life was folded up in half.” The crowd was still as she elaborated on her experiences of grief with “Till Death,” which painfully describes the grief process and its harrowing effects. She sang about the life process, pleading with her partner, “Sing me to sleep, soothe this insomnia / Haunted dreams, stages of grief / Repressed memories.”
As promised, she ended with two high-energy songs, “Everybody Wants to Love You” and “Machinist.” “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a joyful, energetic track that makes me want to jump on clouds, frolic in fields, and do whatever else is shown on tampon commercials. Zauner asked: “Will you make me breakfast in bed? / Ask me to get married / And then make me breakfast again!” The lead single from Soft Sounds, “Machinist,” is a sci-fi dance number about falling in love with a robot. She precedes the chorus by softly asking, “Do you trust me? Can you feel it? It could be bliss,” before launching into the chorus where she sings, “Let go a piece of your heart / All the pleasure it gives / . . . I just wanted it all.” This got everyone dancing.
Zauner consistently provided a warm and familiar presence throughout the show. At one point, she jumped down from the stage to dance with everyone else, making her presence as familiar as a friend’s. She asked us if Canadian thanksgiving is similar to American thanksgiving, the latter she described as just a reason to drink with your family and childhood friends. She acknowledged the awful state of affairs in the United States, then lightly commented that everything, such as corner stores without the luxury of dep candy, is worse there. At one point, she asked whether folks had watched the latest Blade Runner movie. In response to the crowd’s mixed reaction she said, “So I heard a man yell, ‘IT KICKED ASS’ and a woman just do a meh hand gesture.” With this coy response, she reaffirmed much of what her music and presence says—please, listen to women.