“I want it all,” Michelle Zauner coos on “Diving Woman,” the opening track from her new album as Japanese Breakfast. The breathy vocals turn what could be a bold opening statement into a kind of aspirational mantra, something to reach toward.
Six and a half minutes long, “Diving Woman” is an enticing, meandering track that immediately differentiates Soft Sounds From Another Planet from Japanese Breakfast’s last release, 2016’s Psychopomp. That record was short, sweet, and immediate. Zauner put it together right after her mother passed away from cancer, and though most of its songs weren’t explicitly about her mother’s death, the album had a sense of working through fear and pain as they’re happening. That rawness was what made Psychopomp stand out, despite the fact that some of its two-minute tracks slid pleasantly in one ear and back out the other.
Soft Sounds, on the other hand, takes the time to brood, and is stronger for it. Zauner’s guitar is still at the forefront but now shares the spotlight with flitting synths and bells. Her vocals, meanwhile, are lighter than they’ve ever been, creating space for the songs to swell underneath. Soft Sounds is an indie rock album, but the tracks aren’t interested in catchy hooks so much as settling into a good groove and seeing where it goes. This isn’t a departure for Zauner, then, but an expansion.
Because of this calmer tone, Soft Sounds feels simultaneously in-depth and distant, the lyrics often expressing a sense of disconnection and isolation, as if sung by someone looking in on her life. In “Road Head,” Zauner recalls a failed relationship while remaining separate from it, her voice floating as she sings, “‘dream on, baby,’ were his last words to me” – a reference to an ex who told Zauner she wasn’t good enough for a career in music. The airy vocals and synths don’t create a sense of emptiness, but possibility, like the narrator is dreaming herself right past this shitty dude.