Updated: Jun 20, 2018
by contributing writer James Benjamin
While living in densely populated cities — wholly consumed with distinctly human preoccupations we as people collectively decided are important — it is easy to
forget that the vast majority of known existence is made up of the dark, cold and empty space that stretches on infinitely between interstellar bodies.
Outer space is both beautiful and terrifying. Its scale and natural splendor is literally too much to fathom. Yet, despite the unimaginably large or dense structures found floating within, the black void of uncharted space can be a chilling reminder of our loneliness and vast ignorance.
Michelle Zauner chose space as the sonic setting for Soft Sounds from Another Planet, the second album released under the Little Big League vocalist and guitarist’s experimental indie rock project Japanese Breakfast. It’s a fitting realm for the album that explores the intermingled sensations of love and pain.
There is a sense of open space on the album, despite dense and occasionally nuanced production. This is an effect Zauner accomplishes with echoing vocals and
other-worldly synths. Perhaps the best example of both is found on the stage-setting opener “Diving Woman.”
Most of the songs on the album aren’t any more than a few minutes, but the meandering guitar on “Diving Woman” stretches it to nearly seven. The track is an ode to the traditional woman free divers found in the Korean island Jeju. Zauner plunges listeners deep into the album’s guitar- and synth-driven realm.
From this opening baptism, listeners emerge to find a bouncier backdrop on “Road Head.” The song describes an act of wild and reckless adventurism representing a last-ditch effort to save an already doomed relationship.
The song is one of several fleshed-out or repurposed numbers from Zauner’s other musical projects or earlier Japanese Breakfast recordings. But those intricately familiar with the songwriter’s career output are not likely to find anything on Soft Sounds repetitive or redundant. Songs like “Road Head” have new, vibrant life recorded in the context of this album.
“Machinist” is one of the collection’s most intriguing moments. The double-meaning song is, on its surface, about a flesh-and-bone woman who falls in love with a robot. Zauner sings in a pitch-altered voice reminiscent of Kanye West, but totally appropriate for the theme and darker surrounding synths. A spoken-word intro perfectly segues into the music.
“I don't know how it happened,” goes Zauner’s foreboding prose. “Was it always this way, and I just couldn't see it?”
There are several standout songs in the middle of the album, including “Boyish” and the nosier-sounding “12 Steps.” Soft Sounds ends on a softer, personal note, though. “The Body is a Blade” is Zauner’s observation about how, even after crippling trauma, life presses on. Our bodies don’t quit, and even while we might wish we could fade from existence, we don’t. Our insistent mortality can be a hopeful thing when we realize that the world is not ending, that life continues onward and we have a role in whether the remaining time is good or bad.
Zauner’s vocals are front-and-center on the calming “Till Death,” a statement about how love can transcend cosmic-sized fears like the unknown and dying. Acoustic guitar takes the lead on “This House,” a warm track about the importance of having a home to return to. Soft Sounds closes with the gorgeous but haunting chime of church bells, speaking one final time to the complexity of open space.
This is an album with full and free-ranging movement. Zauner gives purpose to microscopic mortal existence by emphasizing that life and love is as significant as we make it, even if obstacles are encountered along the journey. Pushing forward into the dark unknown can help us discover planets of momentous purpose.