Mitski’s New Album “Puberty 2” Hits All the Sad, Sweet Spots

Twilight haunts Mitski. Its presence is everywhere on Puberty 2, the 25-year-old biracial punk poet’s fantastically titled fourth album.

While she was a student at SUNY Purchase, Mitski Miyawaki released two albums, and ever since, she has built a community of listeners who connect and commiserate with her confessional lyrics and visceral melodies. She broke into the national music scene in 2014 with her album Bury Me At Makeout Creek. On that album, she swapped her strings and piano for Brooklyn bass and guitars. Her thoughtfulness, work ethic, and visibility as a talented woman of color in the punk scene have won her devoted fans across the country.

Lyrics about setting suns, warm summer nights, and dark predawn hours weave through the 11 luminous songs on Puberty 2. Mitski’s raw voice and fuzzy guitar guide us through life’s half-lit spaces: stilted romance, uncertain feelings, the area between desire and denial. Her songs explore the aching quest for growth—emotional and otherwise—and the inevitable, frustrating slide back into the same old terrain. It’s apt that an album about growth and cycles draws on imagery of twilight; throughout history and across cultures, the moon has often represented womanhood. Though she brings a sardonic edge to everything she does, Mitski is very open about her belief in astrology, and she created a Twitter account devoted to helping her followers parse celestial mysticisms. (She even has moon phase pins as official merch.)

On lead single “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski flexes her incredible gifts for drawing out specific details and tapping into the universal wish to be wanted as much as you want. It’s something that comes through in the song’s incredible music video, as Mitski’s desire—for a certain boy, for a mythic Americana that still largely excludes people who look and think like her—crumbles and then, thrillingly, rebuilds her into someone who is not quite happy but is clear-eyed about who she is and where she comes from. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do, I finally do” is her line in the sand. As she explained in a recent post about the song on Facebook,  “I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life. How hard I tried, we were from different worlds, and there was nothing I could do about that.”

 

A hunger cuts through the album’s gloom, and Mitski both rolls her eyes and expects the worst. “My music is the result of not being that teenager anymore but still being sad,” Mitski said in a recent Fader profile. “The world goes on, and you’re not important. There’s a lesser sense of, I’m the protagonist, this is a great tragedy. It’s more, ‘My sadness is living here, I have to deal with it. I wish this weren’t happening, but I’m used to it.’” That push and pull comes through in the savage, dissonant album opener “Happy.” In that song, Mitski personifies happiness as a mythic man who won’t let her be alone at night and who then slips out at the break of dawn:

“Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way

I poured him tea and he told me it’ll all be okay

Well I told him I’d do anything to have him stay with me

So he laid me down, and I felt happy, come inside of me

He laid me down, and I felt happy”

This is a shadow of happiness, a facsimile. Happy holds her close in private and then is on his way, a recurring theme that seems to follow Mitski as she sings her way through these tacit rejections and public disappointments. The song’s industrial edges (as well as a memorable sax part) add an element of solidity to her voice, which strengthens in quality as the song goes on to an almost cheerful denouement.

This mid-song mood change is a potent songwriting tool, and she deploys it several other times, including on “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” which provides the most quietly devastating moment on an album that brims with feeling. Positioning herself as a spectator to a sadness that mirrors her own, Mitski addresses a lover who’s perhaps with another: “Tell your baby that I’m your baby.” It’s a powerful riff on the often liminal states of young relationships, where lovers dance around their feelings, both unwittingly and consciously hurting themselves and each other. The dogs run around the track, and she runs herself into circuitous lines of logic, playing telephone with someone who only answers when she comes. (The line “Someone to watch me die” is, of course, in reference to la petite mort.)  Though Mitski accepts her sadness, that doesn’t mean it will hold her back. On the song “Thursday Girl,” she owns up to her complicity in the stasis she can’t quite seem to shake: “Somebody tell me no,” she hymns.

In a New York Times profile this month, Mitski reflected on how she mines her dark times for her music.  “I’m trying to break the cycle of thinking only fraught situations bring meaningful art,” she explained. It is the age-old artist’s dilemma: When you draw your inspiration from a broken self, what does it mean to try to put yourself together? The solution isn’t, perhaps, to stop feeling in full all the things that got you there. As Leslie Jamison writes in her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”: “Keep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.” Mitski must, and does, see herself through. Then, something like the sun appears: “hope next time I’m v sad I remember my current lightness that’s come right after a tunnel of super sadness + that I thought would never come,” she tweeted recently.

So it’s a pleasant surprise that Puberty 2 ends with a vision of hot, fragrant fire. “A Burning Hill” is perhaps the gentlest song on the album, and it presents Mitski as she appears on the album cover: watching, waiting, witnessing, all in a white button-down. She is weighted by the fatigue of being up-and-down with lovers, of haphazardly chasing happiness, torn between the life she longs to lead and the things that make her burn. “I am a forest fire/ And I am the fire and I am the forest/ And I am a witness watching it/ I stand in a valley watching it/ And you are not there at all”—a vision of destruction, rebirth, and reclamation, all happening brilliantly to someone who is still caught in a riptide of feeling but who is making her way to shore.

by Lilian Min
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Lilian Min is a culture writer, photographer, and fangirl. Follow her on Twitter @llnmn.

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