Japanese Breakfast is a very good band name. Possibly the best? I would listen to them based on the name alone, and I have a thing about band names. The thing about naming your creative act is that it should/does reflect what the rest of your artistic ethos accomplishes. That’s why band names matter! That’s why bad band names feel so frustrating, the naming is part of it. It’s not tangential. It’s everything.
Maybe part of Michelle Zauner knew or sensed that when she decided to branch off from her main gig as the front woman for Philly punkers Little Big League (a fine name, but no Japanese Breakfast) and released an independent tape full of song-a-day tracks called June. She wrote that she’d been feeling stuck creatively, and included the very necessary, wise Isabel Allende quote as part of her impetus: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” After June Zauner embarked on another daily songwriting project as part of a concerted effort with several other phenomenal songwriters–Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos, Gabby Smith of Eskimeaux, and Emily Sprague of Florist. The results of that were Where Is My Great Big Feeling?, (an ideal album name, and also an evergreen question for our hearts) which she followed with American Sound. At this point, Ned Eisenberg got involved to help Zauner produce, and his tiny flourishes are all over what came next, Psychopomp.
If her other releases were testing the waters, Psychopomp is a headfirst dive. The album is a cohesive statement for her work as solo artist–Japanese Breakfast can no longer be referred to as a side project–and old tracks from the earlier tapes show up here incandescent, when before, they were just reflections. This is partially due to Eisenberg’s careful polishing, yes, but also must be credited to the yawning vulnerability Zauner is tapping into; it sounds like she’s begun to live inside the songs, instead of considering them tangential. “He loves me like a slot machine” she sings on “Triple 7,” hitting on the luck and fortune of love, reminding us that the deepness excavating our hearts often glances off shallow chance. It’s love as a nickel, a lever, and a yank. These are the sort of innocent, incisive slivers embedded all throughout this album.
“Heaven” is the opener, and maybe the most wide-eyed of them all, a song that lives up to its name, and seems to suggest that dream pop has a rightful place up in the sky, if we ever get there. A couple tracks later, “Rugged Country” indicating that we’re getting something that’s rougher around the edges, but the song opens up like a jar of frosting inexplicably full of pop rocks. All the creamy smoothness of Zauner’s voice makes the crackle of the synths that much more satisfying, and the textures clash further when she ventures a snarl. Perhaps it’s her voice that changes the most across the record, as the production is mostly synth-pop spiked with playful guitar and bass lines, but she goes from slurred rocker to breathy and low, and then out of nowhere on “Everybody Wants To Love You” jumps into this baby-coo head voice that is just a delight. That character appears again on “Jane Cum,” with a much different story to tell, and an ominous windblown soundtrack to help.
Really, if we return to naming, these songs are as simple and wholesome as the thing you eat every day to start your life, and they’re still specific enough to Zauner to be meaningful. The name hints at her own heritage, half-Korean, joining it with the decidedly American word breakfast. She dedicates the entirety of Psychopomp to her mother who was diagnosed with a rare cancer back in 2014, during the Where Is My Great Big Feeling? sessions. Of course, that information helps shape our insight into what prompted her introspection, what feelings might have fueled her rawness, but it also sheds new light on the title. Psychopomp, a stab at elegance in the midst of trying circumstance, a run through a brain grappling with ceremony. What’s in a name? Sometimes everything. This would not sounds so sweet if it was not Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast. Savor the name, savor the music, and stream it below.