Photo by Peter Ash Lee
At a point in most, if not all, of our lives, we enter a period where joy feels foreign, even forbidden. By way of weariness, grief, loss, betrayal, trauma or some other nasty mutant curveball life’s cooked up, we can become so distanced from the sensations of the ecstasy the world has to offer that it becomes tough to imagine and difficult to stomach. Like taking a sip of a dense nectar when you were expecting water or pulling back to curtains after a long night to light so bright it hurts. In these instances, you have a choice: to suffer, or to, eventually and slowly, relearn and re-normalize happiness. On her latest album, Michelle Zauner’s work runs headlong with bells on into the latter option, and offers to bring us along.
Zauner’s body of work (namely, her first album, 2016’s Psychopomp, which was recorded in the wake of her mother’s death, and her recent memoir, Crying in H-Mart) is infused with grief, both so incomprehensible and so utterly human, it’s impossible not to be brought to your knees by its unbridled truths. But on this third record, the grief and joy — in all their contradictions — are symbiotic, making way for maximalist elation-inducing walls of sound and feeling that are unhindered in their bliss.
“I wanted to just explore a different part of me: I am capable of joy, and I have experienced a lot of joy,” she told Pitchfork about the album. “All the songs are different reminders of how to experience or carve out space for that.”
“Paprika,” the album’s opener, is the prototype for this joy. Appropriately, it’s an ode to the power and magic that music has to rattle your bones and light your soul ablaze the way nothing else on earth can, and it’s a testament to its own claim over and over again: Zauner’s peaking, sweet, melodic scream when the chorus comes back in, the anthemic horn lines that are equal parts symphony and children’s song, the smiling percussion that jangles on like change in a cup holder while you zip carefree down a bumpy back road. According to Zauner, they topped out their Pro Tools session’s limit due to the sheer amount of stuff on the song. Even “In Hell” — a bleak Soft Sounds-era bonus track, a companion song to Psychopomp’s “In Heaven,” a song about the pain of living through that same dog’s euthanization and a sadder song than I previously could have dreamt up — positively glistens with weightless synth.
Like the rest of her work, Zauner is a master storyteller, tapping into a cast of complex sonic and lyrical characters of her creation. On Alex G-co-produced “Savage Good Boy,” she’s a lonely, loony bunker-buying billionaire. On “Kokomo, IN,” she’s the most mature, melancholic, lovesick teenage boy that ever lived. On “Be Sweet,” she harnesses the energy of an ’80s pop star with the power to break a stadium’s worth of hearts with a perfect chorus (which isn’t all that far off).
Across her many embodiments, she guides us through light. The first time I heard Jubilee, I was processing a life-altering trauma, lying alone on a bed that wasn’t my own and squinting blurrily through tears of confusion out a frustratingly sunny window. Then, like an exhale I never thought would come and just for a moment, I surrendered.