“The title Soft Sounds From Another Planet alludes to the promise of something that may or may not be there. Like a hope in something more. The songs are about human resilience and the strength it takes to claw out of the darkest of spaces.”
Michelle Zauner wrote the debut Japanese Breakfast album in the weeks after her mother died of cancer, thinking she would quit music entirely once it was done. That wasn’t the case. When Psychopomp was released to acclaim in 2016, she was forced to confront her grief. Zauner would find find herself reliving traumatic memories multiple times a day during interviews, trying to remain composed while discussing the most painful experience of her life. Her sophomore album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, is a transmutation of mourning, a reflection that turns back on the cosmos in search of healing.
“I want to be a woman of regimen,” Zauner sings over a burbling synth on the album’s opening track “Diving Woman.” This serves as Zauner’s mission statement: stick to the routine lest you get derailed, don’t cling to the past, don’t descend. In fact, ascend to the stars; Zauner found artistic solace removed from Earth, in outer space and science fiction. “I used the theme as a means to disassociate from trauma,” she explains. “Space used as a place of fantasy.”
And yet, Soft Sounds From Another Planet isn’t a concept album. Over the course of 12 tracks, Zauner explores an expansive thematic universe, a cohesive outpouring of unlike parts structured to create a galaxy of her own design. In the instrumental “Planetary Ambience,” synths communicate the way extraterrestrials might, and on the shapeshifting single “Machinist,” which Zauner has been performing live for over a year now, she details the sci-fi narrative of a woman falling in love with a machine. “It’s pure fiction,” she explains, “But it can map onto real relationships in a relevant way.” The track, which begins with spoken-word ambience, moves into autotune ‘80s pop bliss and ends with a sultry saxophone solo, perfectly marries the experience: there’s a perceptible humanity in mechanical, bodily events.
Within its astral production, much of Soft Sounds From Another Planet stays grounded. “Road Head” is the last chest compression in attempt to resuscitate a doomed relationship, while the penultimate track “This House” is an acoustic dirge that honors Zauner’s chosen family. The baroque pop “Boyish” has a haunting, crystalline clarity that recalls the pathos of a Roy Orbison ballad, while “Body is a Blade” embraces the dark intimacy of Zauner’s Pacific Northwest heroes Elliott Smith and Mount Eerie.
With help from co-producer Craig Hendrix (who also co-produced Little Big League’s debut) and Jorge Elbrecht, (Ariel Pink, Tamaryn) who mixed the album, Zauner recontextualizes her bedroom pop beginnings, expanding and maturing her sound. The sheer massiveness of the big room production on Soft Sounds From Another Planet introduces listeners to a new Japanese Breakfast. Zauner’s familiar, capacious voice will serve as their guide.
“Your body is a blade that moves while your brain is writhing,” she sings. “Knuckled under pain you mourn but your blood is flowing.” There’s discernible pain in the phrasing, Zauner recognizing limitation, a lack of control, but then subverting the feeling, creating her own musical language for confronting trauma. Where Psychopomp introduced the world to Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds dives deeper. It builds space where there is none, and suggests that in the face of tragedy, we find ways to keep on living.
There are certain ineffable qualities to being a punk band that exists meaningfully. In the most simplistic terms, within the music there must be some sort of art practice, something communicative. Even in its most barebones brashness, precise construction goes a long way. This has never been a problem for Philadelphia’s Mannequin Pussy. With two full-length albums, 2014’s G.P. and 2016’s Romantic, inspiring critical acclaim from places like Pitchfork, NPR, Stereogum, the A.V. Club and more, it’s something impossible to describe and impossibly easy to notice. “Being in a punk band where you don’t want to take yourself too seriously while trying to aggressively make art through your music,” frontwoman Marisa Dabice explains of the band’s objective, “I think people sometimes expect kitschy-ness and I don’t want to do that.” There’s no danger of it.
Mannequin Pussy began as a duo between childhood best friends Dabice and guitarist Thanasi Paul. The pair wrote together, eventually feeling pressure to record a collection of songs. They did, and the bulk of Dabice’s first ever original material became their debut release, G.P. The demos showed immediate promise: Dabice’s idiosyncratic guitar playing of someone rediscovering their musical edge and Paul’s instrumental mobility. G.P. is a hopeful sort of scrappy experiment—but one that wouldn’t fully realize Mannequin Pussy until the duo met their creative collaborators in bassist Colins “Bear” Regisford and drummer Kaleen Reading.
Now a quartet, the band’s sophomore LP, Romantic, embodies Mannequin Pussy’s greatness: 20-minutes of hungry, genre-defying eclecticism that no longer feels like a collection of tracks but a record of real, discernible cohesion. Romantic kicks off with its title track, Dabice whisper-singing intimate vignettes of loneliness before exploding into trash-punk realizations—it’s hard to miss the mark when she offers the eyebrow-furrowing scream “I’m in hell.” It proceeds “Emotional High,” the most loving track on the record—a punk-pop anthem that removes itself from the transparent toxicity of some of the album’s other themes, or the progressive politicism of a song like “Pledge,” which offers the listener a new pledge of allegiance, one to themselves and no one else.
At their heart, Mannequin Pussy is a band that mosaics, taking unlike parts and making something new and whole from it’s unique pieces. It’s the direct result an artistic marriage between it’s four members, helmed by Dabice’s no non-sense, vulnerable and strong worldview. “What we hope for when people experience our music is a cathartic release, to not feel so alone in the emotions that most of us have, to maybe see the way other people experience theirs,” she says of the band’s aspirations. “Above all, the hope is that someone can listen to this album, feel connected to it on a personal level and have it set them free from all the toxic feelings that we hold on to.” It’s evident that they will, and do.