When Soft Sounds from Another Planet was released in July 2017, the sky was purple as the sun rose, burning hot on the sidewalk pavement, glistening white over the Hudson. There was a stillness in the hot air as I brewed my tea and let the sounds of dream pop and healing run through my veins. I knew that this album would be one I’d come back to, over and over again, to remind me of what it means to feel alive, to give myself love, to find hope in darkness.
I had seen Japanese Breakfast live at the Bowery Ballroom one week before this album was released, where she opened for Alex G along with the now-defunct Cende. The setting was sparse but the sounds were not – lush, mystical guitar and synthesizer filled the space with head-bobbing solace. We were introduced for the first time to the grooves of “Diving Woman”, the banger “Road Head”. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare surrounding any of it – it was just music emitted from one to another, music that made you feel present in a world that’s ever in the future.
In 2019, Japanese Breakfast played two sold out shows at the massive repurposed Williamsburg factory, Brooklyn Steel. I attended the first. The room was packed to the brim, bodies squeezing against each other just to get even a centimeter closer to the stage. In the past, she had opened shows with “Diving Woman”, an anthem of hope, desire, and strength directly after the astronomical sounds of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” finished playing over the loudspeakers as the band entered the room in the dark. Not this night. This night, there was a full projection created by Brooklyn-based artists Dave and Gabe that flashed Japanese Breakfast on the screen during each blossoming moment of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”, the band walked out and began to play a melancholy track from the latter half of the album, “Jimmy Fallon Big!”, a song awash in slow-moving fuzz.
Not missing a beat, they jumped into “Machinist”, a futurist ballad about the one-sided nature of loving a robot, and Michelle Zauner paced around the stage with her usual booming energy. The audience was washed in red light as psychedelic images dripped up and down the geometrically arranged screen. Phones flew up to capture the moment Zauner stepped near your section of the crowd. Then came the opening track on their first album, Psychopomp, “In Heaven”, as the screen switched to floating clouds and blue skies, the idealist version of the heaven above us.
The background screen became the forefront as the performance progressed. The music video for “The Body is a Blade” was projected during the live performance of the song, transforming the event into a modern sort of silent film viewing. “The Body Is A Blade” makes healing its focal point, in Zauner’s case, healing from the death of her mother. The song reminds us that our bodies carry on as our hearts and minds shrivel, to place faith in our ability to heal from the outside in. There was then a smooth transition to “Till Death”, as its lyrics pertaining to mental health disorders flashed across the screen. It drove the point home: this night was about acceptance and learning how to heal, together. The tension was released once we hit the primal screams of “Jane Cum”, and the happy-go-lucky dream pop of “Everybody Wants to Love You”.
While the set mixed songs from Psychopomp and Soft Sounds, the albums are tied together in thematic material, and the theme of the night was evident. Tension and release is a primary tenet of the structure of music, and this concert was an emblematic example. We explored all angles of dream pop, from light fuzz to screeching guitar to artful screaming juxtaposed with gentle croons; the pain of trauma released by love and hope; psychedelic visuals that transitioned from deep reds to ANXIETY to peaceful clouds gently floating by. A full body experience of tension and release.
There was an encore this time, in 2017 there wasn’t. They covered The Flaming Lips first, and then ended with their old opener: “Diving Woman”. I was relieved to hear this song in the set, a song that immediately fills me with warmth. Closing with “Diving Woman”, an interlude that asks as much as demands us to “have it all”, a song that’s a moment of silence for the past, looked ahead to a future that we can maybe attain. Maybe. That night, awash in the sounds of guitar, memories were miles away, clouds cleared, and somehow, we found tomorrow.
It was a commencement.