Puberty introduces itself by more than the changing of wobbly bits and hair where there wasn’t before; for most people, the loss of innocence and a general sense of confusion are much more horrifying aspects of life’s first big transition. With a cool deadpan, Mitski Miyawaki warns of a second puberty – one that happens in your mid-to-late twenties, when there’s no doubt that your wobbly bits are changing again and there’s hair in even more places than you thought possible. But something else fizzes under the surface. Instead of school drama, it’s workplace fatigue, emotional detachment and the search for a fleeting high mark your move into true adulthood. Nuanced storytelling, hauntingly bare compositions and a sharp, dextrous vocal take this playful metaphor and turn it into an album’s worth of gold.
‘Puberty 2’ evolves naturally from 2014’s ‘Bury Me at Makeout Creek’. Brittle indie rock instrumentation is fleshed out with nervously ticking drum machines and hollow synth pads. This minimalist backdrop holds immense power in the tension it gives these quiet, profound songs. It allows Mitski to deliver stories so confessional they’re likely to make you wince on first listen. The lyrics are the centrepiece, such as on the opener, where “Happy” is personified as a lover who fucks you, then leaves just as quickly as he arrives. It’s witty and harrowing simultaneously, Mitski’s skill for pressure building heightened by the rattling drums that threaten to swallow her voice up. Her vocals are just as bracing, their worn edges packing a surprising range and precision within the detached delivery.
Even though hollow emotions are the subject, Mitski knows how to deliver moments of great catharsis, such as on the potential rock song of the year, ‘Your Best American Girl’, where a darting melody suddenly expands into shrill guitars and raw feeling. Though playing with the classic indie rock trope of tension and release, the song is anything but basic in its emotional palette. On it, Mitski wrestles with identity and self acceptance. She’s painfully conscious that the cultural separation she feels towards her lover’s family is too large of a chasm to cross. As a half Japanese, half American woman, Mitski tells of the isolation of being fully neither, with a killer chorus (“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 trying to be your best American girl”). It’s a rare explosive moment on an album that constantly threatens to bubble over into fits of panic.
‘Fireworks’ is another highlight and the best portrayal of depression we’ve been given in quite some time – a story of ‘fossilised’ sadness and the inability to cry at fireworks anymore; the numbing she describes is tangible in the song’s blackened melody. ‘Crack Baby’ is just as powerful in its assessment of detachment, and a moment where Mitski’s vocal agility shines through. The desperation to find happiness again can be felt in her constantly searching vocal. Some moments aren’t as memorable, such as the brief and plodding ‘A Loving Feeling’. Elsewhere, the album is captivating and rich in feeling.
‘Puberty 2’ is a lift in quality for an artist that has already proven herself to be an excellent songwriter. This is an aching album that feels wholly needed in a way few do. The stakes here are greater than they’ve ever been for Mitski.
Puberty 2 is out now via Dead Oceans.
[Header photo: Ebru Yildiz]