No one who knew of singer/guitarist Michelle Zauner faulted her when she put her Philadelphia-based indie-rock band Little Big League on hiatus and returned home to Oregon after discovering her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Nor would anyone have been surprised had Zauner put down her guitar for the foreseeable future as she coped with the emotions of losing a mother and having to care for her widowed father.
However, Zauner discovered inspiration in sorrow. After gestating her grief over the course of a year, Zauner has now birthed one of the most beautiful and life-affirming albums in recent memory – “Psychopomp.”
Working in collaboration with musician Ned Eisenberg, Japanese Breakfast may not be as hard-hitting sonically as Little Big League, but lyrically and thematically, it’s more vulnerable and intense than anything Zauner has created before.
The complex reactions one has to the loss of a loved one are on full display in “Psychopomp.” No track on the album better examines the gamut of emotions one grapples with than album opener “In Heaven.”
A heart-wrenching threnody, “In Heaven,” finds Zauner anxiously contemplating the whereabouts of her mother’s spirit, singing, “Oh do you believe in heaven? / Like you believed in me / Oh it could be such heaven / If you believed it was real.” Over a bed of heavenly chimes, keyboards and violins, Zauner croons fearlessly, sharing her uncertainty over her mother’s belief in the afterlife. It’s a belief not always discussed between parent and child, and Zauner is poetic in expressing her hopes her mother believed in heaven as much as she did her daughter.
There are moments of understandable selfishness, hints of resentment toward her mother for leaving Zauner with the physical and emotional baggage all survivors of a loss must contend with. She sings, “Is there something you can do with yourself / As I sift through the debris / While I empty every shelf / And flounder in the muck that I’ll be drowning in so soon?”
There is a rawness to Zauner’s vocal delivery in “In Heaven” – and the rest of “Psychopomp” – which suggests she is perhaps untrained in formal singing. However, her voice has a certain authenticity that commands attention. Whether breathy and restrained or sweeping and melodramatic, Zauner undeniably sings from the heart, a quality which imbues the album with an emotional honesty sadly lacking in most contemporary music.
The sentimental juggernaut “Heft” – which, musically, sounds like a lost b-side to The Smashing Pumpkins’ album “Siamese Dream” – is another emotionally earnest example of Zauner’s ability to mine beauty from her bereavement. As chugging bass lines intertwine with steely, twangy guitar chords, the musical mastermind of Japanese Breakfast sings of the sleepless nights she had waiting for her mother’s cancer diagnosis.
Many of the lyrics of “Heft” evoke anxiety, the want to do anything rather than spending her nights “by hospital beds,” Zauner sings. Whether it be wasting time inside during summer days or running for miles to blow off steam, Zauner seems fidgety in her vocal delivery, which only adds to the already anxiety-ridden nature of the song.
It’s the uncertainty of her mother’s health which leaves her singing, “I wanna churn like / Amish butter / I wanna move out / Of your way / I wanna find what’s / There in your stomach.”
The prognosis is not good, and Zauner reveals her mother’s stomach cancer mirrors the cancer which took her aunt months prior.
“It’s the same dark coming,” she fears, a premonition of death in which she responds with an appropriate “Oh fuck it all.”
Not every track on “Pyschopomp” is as emotionally intense as “In Heaven” and “Heft.” The breezy, synth-pop of “The Woman That Loves You” is downright relaxing, and the warm, jangling guitar chords of the up-tempo “Everybody Wants To Love You” are energetic and fun.
The unflinching and intimate portrait of mourning that is “Psychopomp” is not always an easy listen, but those who are willing to join Zauner on her 25-minute sonic journey will be rewarded with what is sure to be one of 2016’s best releases.