Wednesday, March 24th, 2021

Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet

Sweet this is…


Rachel Saywitz: Michelle Zauner is shouting to a glittered, disco-ball adorned heaven with a wink and a smile. Her melodies have boundless enthusiasm with a hint of mischievousness as she pleads to “believe in something.” While “Be Sweet” sounds retro, with ’80s-inspired synths padding out the track’s fuzzy backbeat, the fact that Zauner is the one behind it all brings a fresh quality to her sound, and her clear and piercing vocals sparkle with pure adoration. She dares us to seek happiness in her bright, lifting sound, shouting with joy even if we’re only able to find it for a short, fleeting moment.

Alfred Soto: It begins most unpromisingly: promiscuously thumbed bass with Atari-era synths chirping atop. Blame Jack Tatum of Wild Nothings, who no doubt listens The Cure’s The Top twice daily. Michelle Zauner has a voice requiring a promissory note on its capacity to hook. She keeps her word. “I wanna be-lieve in you/I wanna be-lieve in something,” she pleads. Zauner may not, but I do.

Vikram Joseph: Michelle Zauner has one of those voices that carries so much more than the specific words it emits, capable of imbuing a song about lust with profound loss, and vice versa. This is a potent weapon at any time, but never more so than when coupled with a song this exuberant and a context this loaded with sadness. Her first single as Japanese Breakfast, “Everybody Wants To Love You”, was a torrential fantasia of love and sex, and “Be Sweet” revisits that idea of sexual joy as a defiant, unstoppable force. If “Everybody Wants To Love You” was hedonism in the face of her mum’s cancer diagnosis, “Be Sweet” is a violent uncoupling from the grief that followed, a cloud which hung thickly over the second Japanese Breakfast album. Zauner also knows exactly how to handle kitsch — the ’80s-inspired electronics and neon chorus here are high camp, but also completely exhilarating in a way that doesn’t sound ersatz in the slightest. Her breathy vocals in the verses convey so much pent-up lust and longing, so much desire to be subsumed by something that can swallow her sadness, and in the context of the pandemic this could hardly be more relatable — “Tell the men I’m coming, tell them count the days,” is a manifesto that ought to be enshrined in the COVID recovery roadmap, let’s be honest.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The first two Japanese Breakfast albums used the sonic trappings of shoegaze as a delivery device for perfect pop songs, every one of Michelle Zauner’s lyrical and melodic hooks emphasized by how they broke through the emotionally ambiguous haze of her surroundings. It was a formula that worked — even as Soft Sounds from Another Planet, her sophomore album with this project, expanded the band’s sonic scope to include science fiction post-punk and spare, Elverum-esque folk, Zauner remained committed to undercutting her own pop songwriting with fuzz and distance, always keeping the shot slightly out of focus. “Be Sweet” instead opts to cut to the feeling — much like her work last year with Crying’s Ryan Galloway, she here inverts herself, putting the hook first and using it as a lure into a more subtle unease. She has not abandoned the eerie in pursuit of “Be Sweet”‘s neon synthpop, but it’s more hidden. It’s the tension in the synth line, in the ghostly back-and-forths of the second verse, all nestled in between the undeniably catchy groove of the drums and bass. It’s a tender balance but Zauner hits it, creating a track that captures the malaise and rush of desire.

Will Adams: Jangly, spangly synth-rock that’s expertly timed for the dawn of spring. Zauner demands sweetness, but the song she’s got delivers plenty already.

Oliver Maier: “Be sweet to me, baby” is a great line; “I wanna believe in you, I wanna believe in something” is a little maudlin. The main thing that hurts “Be Sweet” though is the vocal engineering, which allows a slight whine to pierce through on Zauner’s high chorus notes, hard to ignore once you’ve clocked it. If that sounds like nitpicking it’s only because I wish this were as good as it rightfully should be. When the synth comes in after the second chorus it feels like being able to see every star in the night sky.

Nortey Dowuona: Sliding guitars and sharp bass spins around the snapping drums as Michelle slides over and over as the keening synths hurtle around and across the mix. Michelle picks up her guitar and beckons the background echoes until they rise and bubble underneath her voice, while the bass swells and bursts, leaving Michelle striding through the waters of the bass, the synths jumping away, the drums closing the door.

Michael Hong: No one teaches you how to grieve, do they? What to do, how to do it, how long to do it? I’m Chinese. We don’t talk about death. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and bad luck; instead, everything I learned about death came from art, from the movies, shows, and most importantly, music. So when death came, I learned about grief through Japanese Breakfast’s last two albums, about running miles around my neighbourhood and sing-shouting for heaven. About not-so-fairness and how the body moves while your brain writhes. About distracting yourself from the pain and guilt. That’s how I spent the last few years, constantly moving, constantly shouting. Always in constant turbulence. Up one minute, down the next hundred. I spent the last few years trying to be closer to who I thought my mother might have been if she hadn’t lost her last eight to cancer. Learning to grieve in a way that wasn’t quite the way the Americans did it nor the way the Chinese do. I think I found what I was looking for most in the music video for “Everybody Wants to Love,” watching Zauner don her mother’s hanbok, drunk and unafraid, and to anyone else completely out of her mind. It captured that feeling, that desire to engross yourself in a culture you simultaneously do and don’t belong to in the midst of grieving. Parallel to Zauner, I spent the last few years trying to be “more Chinese” — relearning the Mandarin I had lost and immersing myself in Chinese music — just to feel closer to someone I can’t see anymore. But I also spent it being as destructive as I possibly could while maintaining that facade that I didn’t need any sort of help, because what kind of a son could burden the family like that? So this year, I’m choosing to be happy. I’m choosing it today and I’m choosing it tomorrow, and hopefully, I’ll choose it again the day after that. It obviously doesn’t work that way, but I’m still going to try. That’s what “Be Sweet” feels like to me: choosing happiness. Twisting the knobs as far as they’ll go until every percussive hit, every guitar strum, every key, sounds as bright as possible, until each note sounds like it was engineered solely for pleasure. It’s funky and fun, brighter than anything Japanese Breakfast has ever churned out, but it’s Zauner’s vocals that make it feel so good. When she stretches out the line “I want to believe in something,” it reveals the work behind the feeling — “Be Sweet” isn’t weightless euphoria but the decision to define yourself beyond your own grief, to allow yourself to wake up and choose to be happy this time. Asking the world to be a little nicer because maybe you were wrong, maybe you do deserve it. Back when it was announced, Japanese Breakfast tweeted “My new album is called Jubilee. It is about joy.” And like “Be Sweet,” like Michelle Zauner, I think I’m ready to choose joy.

Reader average: [8.33] (6 votes)

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2 Responses to “Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet”

  1. michael <3 <3 <3

  2. Really great blurbs all round, but yeah Michael that’s an absolutely stunning piece of writing and I hope you get all the joy in the world this year!