Too often, single female musicians are lumped in with some amorphous singer-songwriter genre that encompasses any female vocalist with some combination of guitars, pianos, and strings sans band. Puberty 2, the new album by 25-year-old Mitski Miyawaki, is first and foremost a rock record, and an excellently crafted and produced one at that.
Although familiar themes of depression, rejection, sexual frustration, and anxiety poke their heads up throughout the record, deeper inspection reveals the subtleties describing one millennial’s ongoing battle with happiness, all told through vivid imagery and metaphor. Puberty 2 achieves the holy trinity of a really excellent album: catchy (rock) songs, carefully crafted arrangements and production, and raw, resonant lyrics that in this case are sometimes too devastating to listen to closely too often.
After self-releasing her first couple of albums on Bandcamp, Mitski was signed to indie label Double Double Whammy, which put out her 2014 breakthrough, the noisy and thrashing Bury Me at Makeout Creek. And while that album was strong evidence that Mitski was a talented, up-and-coming songwriter and musician, it failed as a harbinger of the cohesiveness and enormous highs of Puberty 2. The origin story reminds me strongly of Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, a Bandcamp stalwart that released his first professionally recorded album, the phenomenal Teens of Denial, on Matador earlier this year. Both are millennials with a knack for delivering acute and poignant lyrics regarding depression (along with other quarter-life ennui sentiments). But while Toledo speaks in conversational and comical tones, often referencing ancient texts and scriptures, Mitski paints vast metaphorical images across the canvas of each song, as if the details within are too difficult to express in such plain terms.
Take the opener “Happy,” for example, in which Mitski anthropomorphizes happiness as a boy who comes over for sex and leaves just as fleetingly. “Happy” begins on a clipping electronic drum sample, introducing Mitski’s lower registered, drowned-in-reverb vocals that evoke the image of her singing to ghosts in haunted theater. The song features the record’s only prominent horn section that allows the song to build and finally break halfway through, backed by a marching beat that brings the song triumphantly to Mitski’s eventual conclusion: “If you’re going take the train / so I can hear it rumble.” Even as happiness evades her once again, she longs to linger on it as long as possible. As an opener, the track is a misleadingly upbeat introduction to what will become a much darker listen.
Following this is “Dan the Dancer,” which chugs along at a decent clip led by churning power chords and a heavy bass line reminiscent of harder British rock bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Twilight Sad. Mitski’s airy vocals give the song a dark shoegaze feel as well, building the ballad up to a pounding coda that leads into the plodding, alien ballroom “Once More to See You.” After this opening trio of increasingly calmer tracks, the fantastic “Fireworks” appears, a slow-burning strummer that displays incredible patience by Mitski to the build the song both lyrically and musically from the ground up, holding off even through the gorgeous melody on the first chorus in which Mitski sings “on one warm summer night I’ll hear fireworks outside / and I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry” in a voice that’s at once nostalgic but at this point beyond crying. Rather, Mitski lets the fireworks linking her to the past stir all her shit back up again and do the crying for her. The drums and guitars breaking in on the final chorus is as awesome a moment as could be created for a lesser artist.
But then we hit the single and centerpiece around which the entire record orbits: “Your Best American Girl.” At its core, the song is a simple expression of unrequited love, as Mitski sees the differences between her mixed upbringing (born in Japan, raised around the world) as a barrier between her and the American boy of interest. But this is not a simple song. Built up from a quiet and intimate acoustic setting, Mitski then lets her guitar do all the crying, screaming and talking she needs to, dropping an impossibly loud assault of distortion as she crushes the listener with “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / but I do, I think I do.” After an eye-of-the-hurricane red herring second verse, the song collapses once again into what I’d call the best moment in music in 2016. This song should be played at full volume, in the dark and with high quality headphones.
Shortly after is the rawest, most rocking song on the record, the heartbreaking “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.” Armed with only a single acoustic guitar loaded to the max with distortion, Mitski lets her voice get wilder and more violently emotional as she delivers blow after blow. “I wanna see the whole world / I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent / I wanna see the whole world!” she wails, her wanderlust brilliantly palpable and painful. “I better ace that interview / I should tell them I’m not afraid to die!” she screams later, channeling her rage at the idea that her gut wrenching existential trauma should somehow be politely hidden away in the bleak pedestrian world of job applications. The sparse instrumentation puts Mitski’s outstanding lyricism front and center.
If there’s one track on Puberty 2 that could be axed, it’s the penultimate “Crack Baby.” While the slow, crumbling synth-laden arrangement is an interesting idea, Mitski’s metaphor of choice is a comparison between the waves of happiness and drug addiction –subject matter that seems out of her resonant wheelhouse, making an already arduous song that comes in a full 1:20 longer than the next longest, feel even longer. But the fuzzy, reverb-drenched acoustic finale “A Burning Hill,” in which a deeply harrowing but resigned Mitski watches her own life fall apart, singing “I am a forest fire; I am the fire and I am the forest and I am a witness watching it.” And it’s in that resignation, that feeling that Mitski has quietly accepted her current state of melancholy that makes her final declaration all the more powerful.
“Today I will wear my white button down / I can at least be neat / and I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep / and all of the littler things.”
It’s in these littler things that one’s whole life is built, all the details that make one unique outside the majority of the day spent at work and asleep. To know that Mitski is quietly projecting a confident self through even these smallest moments makes the entire record seem all the more depressing, honest, and rich.
Puberty 2’s production is dense, textured and interesting. The same goes for its disturbingly honest and brutal lyricism. But it’s those moments right before the titanic guitar crashes or lyrical blows that set this record apart as something absolutely irresistible to come back to time and time again, as painful as it may be. And, outside of Teens of Denial, I can’t think of a better rock record released in the last three years. Mitski has put together an emotional masterpiece, and everyone else out there should sit up and take notice.
Article by HR Huber-Rodriguez