Single Review: “Machinist” by Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast (the solo project of Philadelphia-based artist Michelle Zauner) has announced her sophomore album, titled, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, or S.S.F.A.P for short, and released the first single, called “Machinist,” with a video to accompany it. When I saw Japanese Breakfast perform at First Unitarian Church, Zauner explained that the song is about the future, where space travel and robots are common, and details what might happen if one fell in love with a robot. Zauner performed this song with just her sample pad and synthesizer, modulating her voice on top of her classic electronic pop, while singing about the difficulties of romance with a cold body.The video for “Machinist” takes the concept further, showing the deteriorating mind of a woman trapped on a spaceship, drinking rocket fuel and attempting to build a body for her robot lover. Japanese Breakfast’s videos tell stories on their own, like her video for “Heaven,” which explores Zauner’s own heaven, singing karaoke with her friends and being surrounded by young, handsome men. “Machinist” adds to Japanese Breakfast’s catalog with flashing screens, glowing wires, and perfectly futuristic eyeliner and nails. “We looked at a ton of sci-fi references to piece together our world. We were inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, 2046, and The Fifth Element,” says director of photography Adam Kolodny. This is noticeable in everything from the design of the HAL-like robot eye, to the catwalk-like corridor filled with lights and fog.

The song is filled with the usual glittery synths Japanese Breakfast is known for, but more jarring and airy, giving it a spacious effect. She drops the heavily-distorted guitar from her previous album, Psychopomp, and fills the space with droning beats and robotic tones, sounds you might expect to find in the TRON soundtrack, but that all feel so fresh. Listen closely and you can hear a robot harmonizing with Zauner in the chorus, her voice just barely tinged with autotune, giving the song an artificial veneer that suits it well. It’s a busy song, but she makes it fit to feel comforting and familiar, something you can sing along with, if you could understand any of it. The sax solo at the end is a little corny, but then again, so is the whole thing, which is what’s so great about it. It’s a fun, cheesy song about falling in love with a robot, and it works.

“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,” Michelle Zauner writes in a press release. “The songs are about human resilience and the strength it takes to claw out of the darkest of spaces.” The lyrics of “Machinist” bring out the insanity of it all, but in a way that feels so sincere, almost understandable. “Heart burning hot enough for the both of us/All the times I felt so plugged in, you were tuning out,” she sings at the start, sharing a sentiment that many may feel, sans robotic lover. Perhaps “Machinist” is a lot more human than suggested.

Soft Sounds From Another Planet is out July 14th on Dead Oceans Records. Japanese Breakfast is on tour right now with Slowdive, in June and July with (Sandy) Alex G and Cende, and for five shows in July and August with Tegan and Sara. Pre-order S.S.F.A.P here.

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