On 'Puberty 2,' Mitski Resigns Herself to Less-Than-Perfect Love
The rising indie-rock auteur examines the halting quest for love.
In the chorus to "Townie," Mitski Miyawaki's best-known song to date, the 25-year-old Brooklyn singer-songwriter wishes for "a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony." Her lyrics often equate love with death; on a track from her debut, 2012's Lush, she warns her listener that if she ever stops striving to be beautiful, she might as well "move to a brand-new city and teach myself how to die." These all-consuming, sometimes overwhelming forces are what the rising indie-rock auteur obsesses over, and they manifest in her music with a raw intensity.
Puberty 2, out June 17, is Mitski's fourth record, and in its songs she approaches love and beauty with the keen understanding that both will one day slip from her grasp. If puberty first announces itself by way of that terrifying teenage onset — sudden physical transformations, sudden urges for romantic connection — its second appearance, the one Mitski details here, is a halting quest for love. She captures the anxiety surrounding the relationships we often find ourselves in during our twenties: serious but tenuous, full of the feeling that your contentment could suddenly teeter from its perfect resting place. The songs toggle between arrangements that run the gamut from sparse to lush, offering up a richly stratified bedrock for lyrics that examine the subject from multiple angles.
The record begins with the deceptively titled "Happy," whose first line — "Happy came to visit me" — acknowledges the ephemerality of euphoria. Eschewing her more familiar guitar-drums-bass setup, here Mitski tries something new: For the first few jarring lines, a rapid, sterile beat is the lone accompaniment to her voice. That drum machine continues throughout the track, joined eventually by a blaring saxophone, and although neither appears again in subsequent songs, the uncomfortable, urgent buzz "Happy" creates lingers far past its last note.
Unlike with her previous two albums, on which Mitski worked with multiple collaborators, Puberty 2 features only two people: Mitski herself plus longtime friend and collaborator Patrick Hyland. But the work is her most expansive-sounding yet. Her vocal range has broadened, and the record savvily sets up a juxtaposition of musical moods: One track may be measured, with Mitski letting her lyrics spill out slowly, plaintively, while the next gains surprising speed, her voice shifting uncannily with it.
Despite the variety, the songs for the most part address the same theme: the discomfort and resignation that come with loving someone but knowing it may not work out. It's most starkly present on "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars," a clanging number full of disorienting repetition. Over fervent guitar Mitski hollers, "I work better on a deadline/I'll pick an age when I'm gonna disappear/Until then I'll try again." The atmosphere it evokes is hostile and aggressive, the song a distillation of the emotions she hammers at throughout the album.
She closes with "A Burning Hill," a delayed coda of sorts to "Last Words of a Shooting Star," the final track on her previous album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek. That song found Mitski on a crashing airplane, contemplating not the approaching horror but the fact that, thankfully, she'd leave behind a clean and tidy bedroom. "A Burning Hill" is a more hopeful, self-assured rendition of this need for a proper postmortem image. This time, she's preparing not for a death of the body but an end to the chase for love — she's learning to settle for less. The melody is coaxing and calm, with an acoustic guitar backing her cool, even voice. She describes putting on a respectable white button-down and becoming the embodiment of a purifying blaze: "I am the fire/I am the forest/And I am the victim watching it." Detached as always, she owns her passing. By the end of Puberty 2, Mitski has accepted that love is sometimes lackluster. But at least, this time, she's in charge.
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