Every pop album is a concept album about humans falling in love with machines, but Japanese Breakfast’s new Soft Sounds from Another Planet, out since July, is especially so. “Machinist,” the lead single, tells this familiar tale more directly than usual: the lyrics literally address a robot as love object. “Do you trust me? Can you feel it?” Michelle Zauner asks her beloved, knowing she won’t get an answer, knowing the robot won’t come to life, holding out hope for the tiniest possibility that it might. Auto-Tuned polish coats her aching vocals, translating admissions of human desire into computerized sonic information: she has to speak the seductee’s language. Vocoded gurgles elongate vowels into melisma, while occasionally dripping onto the smooth, reflective surface projected by the keyboards and guitars. In discussing “Machinist,” critics have alluded to recent sci-fi films like Her and Ex Machina, but body meets machine is the oldest story in pop music.
It’s a new story for Zauner, however, who fronted the crunchy power-punk band Little Big League before starting the Japanese Breakfast side project on her own, shaping an assemblage of lo-fi demos into the debut Psychopomp (2016). Her emo tendencies, dominant with Little Big League, still emerge in her music as Japanese Breakfast, most notably in her ear for a naggingly catchy tune, her knack for constructing spiky guitar hooks, and her delight in hiding spiky guitar hooks where you least expect them. Psychopomp marked a change in pace, a turn toward dream-pop jangle and the brighter aspects of shoegaze. Songs about death, loss, and romantic struggle are drowned in bucketloads of feedback, sawdust, the occasional violin, and chiming guitars ringing out through it all. Often feeling crushed by the weight of the sonic seep, periodically summoning a sprightly energy disproportionate to the mild enthusiasm of the guitar figures (especially on “Everybody Wants to Love You”), Psychopomp’s defining musical element is her new vocal affect: higher and dreamier than she tends with Little Big League, too preoccupied with breathy echo to enunciate properly, recalling Angel Olsen’s choked vowels while also ssmitten with sssibilants. It’s hard to concretely describe a singer whose hallmark is airiness, yet there’s a wistful quality to her murmured coos and exclamations that startles, cascading unpredictably in melodic succession as if she’s merely following where the beat leads. In retrospect, Psychopomp sounds transitional. Soft Sounds from Another Planet features hissy electric noise, hypnotic guitar riffs, static crackling and sputtering at odd intervals, fashioned into comelier shapes and placed into a dichotomy with, or perhaps just made to coexist next to, sheets of synthesizer shimmer, glistening keyboard light, and thick electronic texture.
Soft Sounds from Another Planet embodies one of indie-rock’s central dilemmas: the contrast between acoustic and electric sound, which engenders the consequent contrast between electric and electronic. For decades bands have agonized over how warm to make this guitar hook, how harshly to play that power chord, which textural mesh would produce what relationship between which theoretical elements, to what degree should the whole thing be tipped over into an aleatory pile of noise. Strict guitar bands have it hard enough, but synthesizers allow for all sorts of potential crisscrossing messages about technology. A short minute-long interlude called “Planetary Ambience” sets the tone: vacuumesque computer hisses shift and skid against high bleeps and low vibrating buzz, while sweet guitar harmonics pluck and twang, tickling the metallic exterior, highlighting the melodic nuance. Teasing out humanity from the machine is a specialty of Zauner’s. So is tempering hummable moments of pleasure, usually in the form of guitar hooks, with well-placed blats, screeches, glassy surface layers, and other assorted alienation effects. This batch of jangly riffs, her crispest and sharpest, would sound dandy if played over conventional rock backing, but electronically treated they fascinate — for the overwhelming immediacy of their aural crunch and swirl as much as for what the blend means in the abstract. “12 Steps” roars from the speakers with the album’s loudest, feistiest, cheeriest chorus, its chugging acoustic rhythm guitar and fuzzy spiraling riffage pounding with a force that complements the singsong melodic sweetness. “Road Head,” meanwhile, glides unnervingly on its backbeat; the pealing guitar figure, moving back and forth with a hypnotist’s deliberation, provides a fulcrum on which to position fluttery keyboard arpeggios and Zauner’s own intermittent, ethereal exclamations. “Diving Woman,” a triumph of technologically altered shoegaze, could be Ride’s “Seagull” if that track’s furiously blurry wall of sound were clinically dissected, pieced back together modularly, and painted over with a thin, vitreous glaze, as the bassline and echoey dissonant lead guitar twist and shiver. The latter song, which opens the album, really does recall a diver’s arc in slow motion, elegantly and calmly descending from an unspecified height, as if she’s jumping into the album’s subsequent ocean of sound. “I want it all,” she sighs.
Rock plus soundscape equals a synthesis Radiohead fussed over in the ‘90s, trying to balance one mode against the other with mathematical precision and painstaking coldness. As a romantic, Zauner comes to it naturally. Melding her voice into the keyboard shimmer on “The Body is a Blade,” shrinking her voice to a hushed whisper on “Till Death” to suit the strummed gravitas, she feels the electric energy sputtering deep in her bones. Anyway, Soft Sounds from Another Planet hardly fits the Radiohead schema, where electronics are associated with technodystopia, creeping malaise, and earnest social commentary. Rather, it fits the synthpop schema, a genre where performers have for decades now declared themselves enchanted by clean surfaces and efficient automata. Artists fall in love with machines because they envy their shallowness, because the machine’s impassivity underlines their own blushing beating heart, because the paradox’s unattainable outcome promises a lifetime of yearning, because they catch their own reflection in the gleaming surface and find the distortion startling. “Heart burning hot enough for the both of us/I never realized how much you were holding back,” Zauner whispers, a rich metaphor. Loving a robot suggests the difficulty of communication, the impossible uncertainty of knowing another person or sharing an experience, the overlap between intimacy and performance, the observation that these are not opposites. It’s a narrative that appears often in film, but in the allegedly similar Ex Machina, say, the robot’s treatment of the young engineer infatuated with it/her reduces the story to a hysterical male nightmare about women being heartless and manipulative. The comparison doesn’t work, as much of the desire on Soft Sounds from Another Planet is self-directed, folded into the dirty mesh of guitars and feedback waves and sound effects; her performance is, in a sense, the object of her desire. Shura’s Nothing’s Real, one of last year’s loveliest synthpop albums, captures the mood, wistfully autumnal in its slickly shiny evocation of felt, awkward, apprehensive longings implied to extend beyond the limits of the music. Perhaps thanks to the additional helpings of guitar noise, Soft Sounds from Another Planet glows even more warmly, aches more exquisitely, blushes more deeply. This music trembles, alive with possibility.
Hence, “Machinist”: acoustic meets electric, flesh meets metal, the literal articulation of the album’s dialectic. The shivery synth chords, the stiff propulsion of the drum machine, the creepy percussive clacks pingponging through a gust of keyboard chill — behold a sudden, cold-eyed moment of fear, the moment when you realize just how intense your feelings are. The spoken-word bits at the beginning serve to veil the song in hushed intimacy; her Auto-Tuned garble (“demuh-uh-uh-un”) signals that she can’t quite put her feelings into words. During the verse she’s calming herself down; during the chorus her adrenaline spikes. At the end there’s a saxophone solo, perfect for a track this shimmery and distorted. The saxophone keens its melody to the sky, glistening with grandiose pain and awareness. You expect another chorus, but the track stops right before the solo’s abrupt final note. The following moment of silence reveals a frantically beating heart.