2016’s Psychopomp was an album of unfulfilled potential. The solo effort of Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast’s debut hinted at excellence, but eschewed it for bland pop-rock in an attempt to conform to industry norms. Japanese Breakfast buried its own creativity.
Despite this, a set of an excellent singles piqued my interest for Zauner’s sophomore effort. Road Head avoided the conformity of Psychopomp, while Machinist was a marked increase in quality from Zauner’s debut. Soft Sounds from Another Planet seemed poised to usurp its predecessor, capitalizing on Zauner’s talents to create a seemingly superior version of Japanese Breakfast’s original release.
Unfortunately, Soft Sounds, whilst a significant improvement, follows Psychopomp’s failings as well as its successes. The album begins with Diving Woman, a guitar-led track spanning six and a half minutes. Whilst Psychopomp’s introduction was engaging and lively, Diving Woman is dull, dragging a simplistic and uninteresting loop past its welcome. Through this tedium, Zauner makes no attempt to add character to the track, her vocals blending into the cyclical drone of the guitar and creating a bland introduction to the album.
It is here that the flaws of Psychopomp begin to resurface. Whilst Zauner’s voice is unique, it tends to live and die by the instrumentation it’s placed over, with repetitive instrumentation often leaving her voice to fall into the background. This plagued tracks such as Rugged Country on Psychopomp, and indeed continues to detract from Soft Sounds, with slower tracks such as Jimmy Fallon Big! and Boyish falling victim. This heavily detracts from any impact that the lyrics would have, leaving these tracks mind-numbing rather than emotional.
However, things swiftly move uphill. Road Head, originally released as a single, is excellent, with harmonising that works in favour of Zauner’s vocals. Likewise, this track effectively incorporates the space-based sonics that Soft Sounds’ title implies, adding cosmic trills to the familiar bass and acoustic guitars. Indeed, one of this album’s great successes is its thematic fulfilment – most of its tracks utilise this sound, adding a layer of cohesion lacking in its predecessor.
This is seen most predominantly on Machinist, where Zauner’s talent is on full display. The track, centred on falling in love with a robot, begins with despondent synth pads, before progressing towards an 80s-inspired disco chorus. At all stages, the track is cosmically-charged, with vocoders, pads and a saxophone solo binding the disco-influenced sound to the album’s galactic theme. The track is at once forlorn and upbeat, a powerful landmark within the record.
Machinist also marks an improvement of Zauner’s vocal flexibility on more dynamic songs. Across the song she shifts from depressing spoken word to hushed whispers, from a disco-inspired chorus to quiet, autotuned verses, from a gentle hum to a despondent wail. This flexibility is further shown in the musical heights of Soft Sounds from Another Planet, where “striving for goodness while the cruel men win” acts as a powerful cry at the centre of the album’s title track. Despite its occasional failings, Zauner’s vocal flexibility provides much-needed vocal variation.
Unfortunately, past this track, the album’s quality takes a significant dip, and Psychopomp’s issues begin to rear their head once more. The track 12 Steps is, at best, a budget Paramore. Attempting to have a song conforming to traditional patterns, Zauner here discards both the cosmic sound of the album and her own creativity, creating a messy pop-rock track that fails on all fronts. This mistake cost the album’s predecessor heavily, and it does again here, marking a huge dip in quality.
This dip continues for tracks 8 and 9, Jimmy Fallon Big! and The Body Is a Blade. The former, as noted earlier, is washed-out and repetitive, allowing Zauner’s vocals to fade into nothingness. The latter track is littered with Psychopomp’s issues as well, making Zauner’s vocals sound poor through jarring instrumentation and bland guitar-based loops. The harmonica featured towards the track’s ending is somewhat redeeming, though it is near-impossible to redeem the “body is a blade” metaphor and accompanying pseudo-spiritual lyrics.
Despite the failing here, Zauner’s project does have a resurgence. Till Death, This House and the accompanying instrumental Here Come the Tubular Bells act as a gradual mellowing-out of the album’s sound, replacing its frantic riffs and wails with nuanced lullabies. Zauner’s lyrics are at their peak here, allowing us insight into her perspective and ending the record on a high note.
As has been made clear, Soft Sounds is an album of peaks and troughs. At its highs, it soars above Zauner’s previous work, creating a series of varied landscapes for her unique vocals to inhabit. At its lows, however, it falls back into the flaws of Psychopomp, meandering, conforming and embracing tedium. Once more the listener is left uncertain, with an album that just falls short of true success.