Soft Sounds from Another Planet is tricky to place. It has the grand scope of a sci-fi concept album, but with more intimate substance, grounded in the immediacy of Japanese Breakfast singer/songwriter Michelle Zauner’s emotion. This visceral presence acts as the album’s constant: The rest is populated by vague characters and events that could take place anywhere in the present, or in the far past or future.
Zauner gives herself a lot of space to speak and think, shaped not only in her sweeping melodies but in lyrics that recede into the distance like “Lightless miles, miles, and miles.” There’s so much talk of home—of going, leaving, creating, banishing—but home is such a foggy concept that we’re never certain of where or when it is. The only indisputable thing about Soft Sounds is that it’s good. The pacing is impeccable, beginning with “Diving Woman,” a gorgeously thrumming hook with plenty of measured lulls, and ending with church bells that don’t sound on cue but sneak up when you’ve run out of album.
While there are plenty of details that set scenes somewhere earthly (“All our celebrities keep dying,” and particularly, “You gave road head on a turnpike exit”), the album doesn’t feel like it takes place on Earth. It feels airy and forlorn, unstuck in time, like it’s being narrated out of a single-passenger spacecraft in an orbit of respite from the drama on the planet below. “Jimmy Fallon Big!” is a neat example of this; it is, on some level, about being a band and trying to make it big enough to play on Jimmy Fallon. But just past the halfway mark the bass and cymbals and synths swell into something otherworldly, and suddenly we’re not talking about being late for an important meeting anymore.
Soft Sounds never once approaches dystopia, as many sci-fi albums are wont to, and it’s refreshing. That isn’t to say there aren’t similarities: “Machinist” seems to evoke Janelle Monáe’s particular brand of robosexuality, through the clever collision of saxophone and Auto-Tune. But there’s no oppressive figurehead or impending disaster; the enemy isn’t some monolithic, vaguely totalitarian regime. The conflicts are close to the heart and messy, and blame seeps in everywhere. And while there are nonspecific entities aplenty (“cruel men” frequently feature, as well as the invisible menaces of grief and anxiety), you could argue that there’s no external antagonist at all. The character of the abstract “you” is palpable enough: shady and distant on “Road Head,” stagnantly douchey on “Boyish,” and never exclusively in the wrong.
This complexity is what makes Soft Sounds so replayable. It’s inscrutable and familiar at the same time, and worth turning over and over until it makes sense. Take as much time as you need: you’re in a place with infinite time to process everything before the bells sound.
Label: Dead Oceans
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