The taxing climbs and tumbling falls between puberty’s ecstatic peaks and hopeless valleys result in some serious emotional motion sickness, leaving you confused and disoriented by the time you’re spat out into adulthood. Mitski Miyawaki’s new album, Puberty 2, is more akin to a vast, brutally lonely desert. Her last record, 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, was raw to the point of emotional gore. Mitski, who previously described herself as a “tall child,” has gone from wanting “a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony” to wondering, “What do you do with a loving feeling/ If the loving feeling makes you all alone.”
Trained in studio composition at SUNY Purchase (where she made her first two albums, 2012’s Lush and 2013’s Retired From Sad, New Career in Business), the unhinged catharsis of Mitski’s folk pop songs is expressed through her intricate and hi-fi symphonic arrangements. Bury Me At Makeout Creek worked through this catharsis with eruptive energy, massive spoonfuls of existential uncertainty, and song structures that often started soft and unassuming before climaxing in relief and anguish.
With the help of longtime producer Patrick Hyland, Mistki’s only collaborator to date, Puberty 2 revisits these feelings with simmering control, and simple yet powerful instrumental accompaniment. These new songs appear both dejected and joyous, depending on the lighting. There are fewer moments of complete chaos, giving over instead to more detailed-oriented dissections of experiences from puberty. While this might sound like dangerous territory for an artist who’s known for searing riffs and vicious live performances that include screaming into the pickups of her guitar, Mitski uses her voice to measure the slightest nuances within complex emotions.
Opening track “Happy” begins with 30 seconds of sterile, rhythmic thudding that sounds like the finale of an old washing machine’s spin cycle. Over minimalist keyboard and this terse syncopation, Mitski numbly sings about a visit from “Happy”, her story slowly unfolding against unexpected saxophone solos and grungy distortion. She vividly illustrates the minute degrees between happiness and despair — first Happy is visiting with cookies, next he’s gone and all that’s left are “wrappers and empty cups of tea.” Her detached heartbreak sounds disappointed but not surprised, instead resigned in sadness: “Well I sighed and mumbled to myself/ Again I have to clean.” While it’s presumably detailing an encounter with a flyaway love, “Happy” also plays like a lament to the elusive nature of feeling good, an anthem for getting out the proverbial mop again after a particularly messy breakdown.
The love Mitski emanates seems anxious. On the ballad “Once More to See You”, she sings a duet with herself, pleading, “If you would let me give you pinky promises kisses/ Then I wouldn’t have to scream your name atop of every roof in the city of my heart.” It sounds like she’s conducting a half-speed orchestra of bated percussion, supple bass, and buzzy organ, with her own honeyed self-harmonizing capturing the intersection of love and loneliness.
Standout “Fireworks” finds Mitski in the depths of loneliness, beginning with a drum machine beat, low guitar tones, and a prognosis: “One morning this sadness will fossilize and I will forget how to cry.” This sounds bleak, but it’s also decidedly hopeful — though sadness might remain an indelible scar, the chronic pain will be dulled with time. This realization is greeted with both celebratory church bells and ominous synths, allowing jubilance and gloom to harmoniously coexist.
Mitski often describes feeling like an outsider; she was born in Japan and has lived in a dozen countries. This sentiment is reflected in Puberty 2’s almost caricatural indie rock epic, “Your Best American Girl”. Here she mourns the impossibility of a requited love that’s still off-limits, because, as she belts against throttling, clangorous guitars, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me /But I do, I think I do/ And you’re an all-American boy/ I guess I couldn’t help try to be your best American girl.” It plays like part two of Retired From Sad‘s ebullient “Strawberry Blonde”, where she giddily sings, “All I ever wanted was a life in your shape.” This followup sounds like the devastating realization that she can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t have to, change her own shape to fit into that of this all-American boy.
The following track is the album’s understated masterpiece, the fuzzed-out and spacy doo-wop of “I Bet on Losing Dogs”. Mitski overflows tenderness as she coos to her “baby,” asking for a response. From there, she digs deeper, hoping for more: “Would you let me, baby, lose/ On losing dogs,” she sighs. “I want to feel it.” The song’s fuming intensity intimates that she wants so desperately to live in this shadow of love even if it’s not the real thing.
If Puberty 2 has a weakness, it’s the tepid conclusion. After the record’s subdued but complete emotional upheaval, closing duo “Crack Baby” and “A Burning Hill” fall softly, Mitski simply resolving to “love some littler things.” It’s unsatisfying, but there’s something fitting about this undramatic ending. After puberty’s exhausting highs and lows, there’s comfortable beauty in the introspective moments where happiness and sadness can linger together.
Essential Tracks: “I Bet on Losing Dogs”, “Fireworks”, and “Your Best American Girl”