The Music Beat’s Album of the Year coverage concludes with two expansive, genre-defying albums from two of music’s brightest new stars: the waves of sound of Japanese Breakfast’s “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” and the unabashed self-love and critique of SZA’s “CTRL.”
Japanese Breakfast, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” — Jacob Kuppermann
Roughly 57 seconds into “Machinist,” the lead single of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” her sophomore album as Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner gives the game away. As synths iterate behind her and a drum machine beat chugs on, she sings out four words that work as a good of an explanation of the beauty of her music as any: “a mist so palpable.” This line isn’t an intentional thesis statement, of course — Zauner’s music, whether in this solo project or in her work with Philadelphia indie rockers Little Big League, is never quite so didactic — but it can’t help but fit the hazy, dazzling indie rock of “Soft Sounds” perfectly. On her second album in as many years, Zauner refines her music, balancing layers of synths and guitars with direct, affecting lyrics and vocals.
“Soft Sounds From Another Planet” feels oceanic. Where “Psychopomp,” Zauner’s first album, was brilliant but tentative, with its short songs showing glimpses of greatness but only rarely sustaining it for more than a minute. On her follow-up, Japanese Breakfast rectifies that issue. Not only are the songs on “Soft Sounds” longer, with album opener “Diving Woman” sprawling out over 6 minutes, but they feel immersive, worlds within themselves that engulf you. “Soft Sounds” maintains this depth of feeling no matter what Zauner’s gifted, elusive songwriting lands on, whether that’s robot/human romance (“Machinist”), Korean women who dive for oysters (“Diving Woman”) or living with trauma (“The Body Is a Blade”).
It’s on that last song that Zauner best illustrates what’s so compelling about her style. The song builds from a simple, arpeggio-based guitar riff that feels like it’s constantly unfurling in front of you into something more propulsive in the chorus, before bringing in a massive, dazzling analog synth that leads the song into its final turns. All the while, Zauner sings with a wistful clarity, weighing the different tribulations and coping mechanisms of trauma. Even as the band around her rises in glorious noise, she’s calm, moving at her own pace to help you soak in the feeling of the song.
Even when Zauner strays from the shoegaze-influenced walls of sound that most of the album dwells in, she finds similar balance. “Boyish,” a Roy Orbison-esque pop song complete with harpsichord and a string section, couples its retro stylings with a bitterly funny musing on a partner with a wandering eye, singing “I can’t get you off my mind/I can’t get you off in general.” The style and lyric pair together perfectly, somehow — an earlier version of the song appeared as a straight-ahead rock song on a Little Big League album, and the extra space Zauner gives it here lets it bloom.
It’s that absolute control of sonic space, that deep understanding of how sound and silence layer and build, that sets the Japanese Breakfast of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” apart. Every second of the album feels perfectly arranged, not a single note or word out of place.
SZA, “Ctrl” — Clare Flanagan
Since the release of “Z”, her critically-acclaimed debut studio EP, critics and audiences alike have been eagerly awaiting SZA’s first full-length album. It took a lot longer than many listeners anticipated — the neo-soul singer spent three solid years in the studio, generating nearly 200 original tracks that she would eventually whittle down to a 14-song record. Her painstaking creative process, which relied heavily on freestyling and analog recording techniques, paid off in spectacular fashion. “Ctrl” was released this past June to an overwhelmingly positive reception, and has since sold over 500,000 copies and earned 4 Grammy nominations.
This success is both hard-earned and wholly deserved. “Ctrl” is composed of soaring, candid and wildly creative songs that traverse a wide breadth of musical and emotional territory. SZA herself admitted that the vast amount of material she generated — and the care she took while paring it down to a final product — was driven by a fair amount of anxiety and perfectionism. As a result, there’s not a weak song in the bunch. However, some certainly stand out — the single “Love Galore,” which peaked at #32 on the Billboard chart, comes to mind. It’s a certified banger, driven by spare, melancholy bass and augmented by a glittering guest verse from Travis Scott.
But what distinguishes “Love Galore” from its Top 40 cohort — and really, what makes “Ctrl” a remarkable album on the whole — is its frank discussion of what it’s like to negotiate the distorted, treacherous landscape of millennial love. Public dialogue is flooded with hypotheses as to why today’s twenty-somethings struggle so profoundly with commitment, loneliness and mutual respect. “Ctrl” exhibits remarkable insight into these issues, and it’s all thanks to SZA’s unfiltered storytelling. She exhibits a razor-sharp understanding of both self and other, delivered in lilting verses that unfurl beautifully over thoughtful, trap-tinged production.
In the span of a single song, she can express envy, lust, insecurity, frustration and longing, mapping the terrain of a modern relationship in all of its maddening complexity. She wavers between self-possessed cynicism — see “Love Galore”, where she asks, point-blank, “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?” — and unabashed, moving admissions of hope and need. She’s no fool — her lyrics make it clear that she’s been through the romantic wringer, that she understands fairytale love to be the exception, not the rule. But, like all of us, she wants to believe. In the transcendent “Garden (Say it Like Dat)”, her rich, clear vocals reach for an emotional and sonic ceiling. “You’ll never love me,” she admits, “but I believe you when you say it like that.”
Though shaped and driven by the experience of love, “Ctrl” is more than an album of love songs. It’s evidence of a hard-won self — an unabridged account of a woman who, through long hours in the studio and trials of the heart, has emerged as a genuine artist. Its technical virtuosity is undeniable, but what sets it apart is SZA’s ability to convey the difficulty and nuance of forging human connection in times like these.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu and Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu.