Like the title of their latest album Jubilee suggests, Japanese Breakfast were indeed jubilant. As a result of Covid, their European tour had been postponed since March – but to a sold-out Manchester audience, it certainly did not disappoint.
The band were impeccable: fully fleshed with trumpets, a huge gold gong, and bass guitars. On top of this, Michelle Zauner’s performance was captivating. It felt neurotic but somehow joyous, with strung-out minor chords creating a sense of calm despite the seemingly counteractive gig environment.
The support from this tour comes from Brooklyn-based band, Barrie. They came out in matching white outfits, creating a kind of etherealness which continued throughout their performance. The band had choreographed a vogue-esque dance to accompany their lyrics. I’d never seen anything like it, but its quirkiness became endearing and I couldn’t help myself from dancing along with them – trying and failing to copy their moves.
Their songs reminded me of Frankie Cosmos, with influences of Japanese Breakfast: electronic notes, minor chords, and strung-out melodies. I’m always slightly lax about a support band, but Barrie definitely held their own.
Then it was Japanese Breakfast’s turn. When lead singer Michelle Zauner took the stage at Manchester’s Albert Hall, clad in an all-white floaty dress, chunky black platforms, and a bright-red hair tie, there was a lot to be jubilant about.
The first notes of ‘Paprika’ reverberate around the crowd for a few moments before the lyrics begin. The song is about the connection Zauner makes with her audience through her lyrics and when performing. It is a song which breaks the fourth wall: she is singing about her singing, performing a song which itself is about performing. Without physically reading her lyrics, it would be easy to miss what Zauner is saying. But this seems done almost on purpose, as Zauner continues to explore big, sweeping ideas but through a medium that is energetic and upbeat, rather than sombre and overly serious.
Without much conversation, the band quickly moves on to their next song on the setlist: ‘Be Sweet’. Much more upbeat, and sounding like a song straight out of the 80s, the sound of the song belies some of its more desperate lyrics. In the song, Zauner sings about the longingness to mend a broken relationship: the lyrics “make it up to me,” are repeated throughout, as she pleads with her partner to “be sweet to me.”
After ‘In Heaven’ and ‘The Woman That Loves You’, comes ‘Kokomo, IN’. This song is stripped back of some of the electronic sounds which feature throughout Jubilee. It is a ballad about teenage love and loneliness, about a partner moving on, and about the person left behind.
A cheer comes from the audience when the first notes of the next song start to play. ‘Road head’ is a crowd favourite. The song only has two verses, but its clever lyricism is what makes it so popular. Zauner describes the song as being about “that really ugly moment when you try to do something sexually wild to save a relationship.“
She describes how she wrote it about an ex-boyfriend who made her feel bad about her music career. Now, Zauner is the one with the last laugh: repeating something her ex-boyfriend could have easily said to her before – ‘dream on, baby’.
One of my favourites on her new album, Savage Good Boy, does not require any opening chords – and so its lyrics begin instantly. In the song, Zauner adopts the personality of a rich man, buying a bunker to save him and his lover from an impending apocalypse. Her adoption of such a perspective feels empowering. It is Zauner making the money, behaving badly, drinking wine, and getting what she wants. And the crowd loves it.
‘Boyish’ and ‘Slide Tackle’ are some of the next songs on the list. ‘Boyish’ is heavily neurotic, a song about a woman who is insecure about her relationship and about her partner. My favourite line in the song expresses Zauner’s songwriting skills perfectly: “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general,” plays on sentence structure to communicate the feeling of sexual inadequacy.
It is a song, more broadly, about unrequited love, and how such love might make someone act. The girl in the song is desperate, angry, and overly self-critical, and the slowness and sound of the song reinforces this.
‘Slide Tackle’ brings the vibes back up. The crowd starts moving again, and Zauner and her husband/bass player/pianist Peter Bradley share a rare moment of intimacy on stage as they walk towards each other until their foreheads meet, with the lines “be good to me,” providing the musical backdrop. ‘Slide Tackle’ was followed by one of my favourite Japanese Breakfast songs, ‘Everybody Wants To Love You’. And for the encore, the band treated us to two more favourites, ‘Posing for Cars’ and finally, ‘Driving Woman’.
Michelle Zauner is on top of the world right now. Her memoir, Crying in H Mart published in April 2021, achieving critical acclaim and debuting at number two on the New York Times best-seller list. Her prose writing is as good as her songwriting, as she weaves together the themes of family, food, grief, love, and culture.
After her mother died of cancer in 2014, Zauner found herself frequenting the isles of Korean supermarket H-mart, crying over Mandu and jars of kimchi. Her memoir is a love letter to Korean food, and an attempt to continue the relationship she had with her mother through a new-found love of Korean cooking. I’ve been recommending the book to every one of my long-suffering friends, and now, I’m recommending it to you.
Overall, Japanese Breakfast put on a phenomenal show. The band was superb, and Michelle Zauner, like in all of her other projects, gave us something that was palpably real.