This semester, I’m taking a class on Elegy, a genre which discusses and explores how we lament for the dead. One of my English professors discusses Lycidas, in detail, and laments how, if anything, Milton gets away with making something so beautiful and yet remains impersonal. Sometimes I want to hand over my iPod and say, Listen to this album, and don’t worry, the elegy isn’t dead. Even if that’s a terrible pun, it’s true, the elegy is alive and well. I want to say Listen, here, to what happens when the elegy is turned personal, maybe too personal … I want to say, It’s beautiful.
The title of the album I’m referring to is is Psychopomp, by Michelle Zauner and runs at just a little over twenty-five minutes. And while Japanese Breakfast might sound like the beginning of a food review, it’s actually Zauner’s solo moniker under which she released the album back in 2016. Its main lyrical topic woven throughout lo-fi percussion and synths is the death of Zauner’s mother. Each song seems to represent a facet of grief. Loss and anger are clear as ever in “Rugged Country” and “Triple 7,” while confusion and bargaining play out in “Heft,” “In Heaven,” and “The Woman That Loves You.” Fondness and recollection of her mother’s memory are also included in small interludes of instrumentals scattered with phone messages played over in static-tones and, of course, the album’s cover, a tribute to her before she had gotten sick.
The album is cinematic and strangely catchy given the weight of its lyrics, infused with the energy of Zauner’s former band Little Big League, from when she played on the pop punk scene. It’s also quite reminiscent of the pastoral elegy with lyrics such as: “Oh how they want, how they need, how they cling to my sleeves till they’re lacerated sails, but in the night I am someone else,” and “this is where I bring you with every laurel I hung around your neck,” and “it’s a heavy hand where I wear your death as a wedding ring in the rugged country.”
Part of the beauty here is Zauner’s refusal to mince words. This same grief is later referenced as “soulless animals feeding” on her, and she uses this imagery to evoke someone worn to bones being held “between a shadow-like creature’s teeth.” Her grief is made clear; all encompassing, leaving her “floundering in the muck,” as she drowns trying to sift through both leftover possessions and memories. Yet the album certainly isn’t one note. Songs on it deal with lovers, self-exploration, and grappling with the future. Grief colors the tone of each of these songs, providing notes of melancholy, and thereby an extra weight and resonance for the listener. After all, grief is universal. Whether it’s losing a family member, close friend, or your sense of belonging—death or not—loss of something is a topic that’s relatable to everyone.
Then there’s the most radio-friendly song on the album, “Everybody Wants to Love You.” It’s the only song that doesn’t directly approach the topic of grief, and yet it somehow might be the most moving tribute on the album. The song is poppy, sweet, and sounds surprisingly fun compared to the rest of the music. While the song itself is disconnected narratively, one needs only to look at the music video to make it clear Zauner is honoring her mother’s memory in this final song. Zauner is both Jewish and Korean (Korean on her mother’s side). In the video she wears her mother’s traditional hanbok, a wig, and full traditional-makeup, juxtaposing it with a very Americanized “night out on the town” look. When talking to The Inquirer she remarked: “In an indie-rock world where being an Asian-American front woman is so rare, I feels like I’m wearing it all the time.” And regarding her grief: “What can you do other than learn from it, and feel it, and I don’t know, just find a way to heal?”
And she’s right.
People often write, create music, and make art because loss leaves us asking that same question, one that may never have an answer. In that sense, to grieve is miserable, but also divine. Zauner herself has proven while we’re no longer necessarily living in a time where shepherds wander the countryside and Milton’s days of the scholarly dirge may be outdated, there’s still music in Elegy-modern music that’s both poignant and somber, but also refreshingly genuine as it accompanies the upbeat, power-jammed guitar solos of a woman’s multifaceted journey through mourning.