I listened to Mitski’s new album Puberty 2 for the first time while hungover on a bus, rocketing through a rainstorm drowning the Toronto suburbs and ruining everyone’s weekend plans. When I’m in that state, I usually keep my head down and my earbuds stowed away. I’d rather contemplate all of the bad decisions that led me to that point in silence, and any reserve brain power is devoted to pursuing the largest cup of coffee imaginable.
But it was the perfect environment for Puberty 2, an album Mitski spends picking at her psyche like it’s a troublesome scab. Whether it’s a brutal hangover or something more serious, the music invites you to look deep within yourself, stare down whatever’s ailing you, and reckon with the fact that there may not be an easy solution.
The music Mitski made as a composition student at SUNY Purchase was graceful and spare, but it still oozed menace. She wrote dreamlike songs that threatened to morph into nightmares at a moment’s notice. "Eric," a dread-soaked highlight from her 2012 debut Lush, sounds like Björk at her most unsettled; "I Want You" is like a DIY version of the Platters’ "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," a surge of lust frozen in time. Her 2014 breakout Bury Me at Makeout Creek caked those melodies in distortion, forcing its listeners to dig beneath the surface and reckon with her razor-sharp writing. (Take this line from "Townie," a song about someone caught between embracing freedom and losing control: "I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony / I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.")
Versatility through volatility
Puberty 2 restores some of the unadulterated beauty of her early music without sacrificing Bury Me at Makeout Creek’s edge, and it juxtaposes the two to devastating effect. That juxtaposition helps to explain the effectiveness of single "Your Best American Girl," one of the best songs of the year: it lulls you to sleep with a muted opening stretch before drowning you in a wave of noise and emotion. Girl-group hallucinations like "Once More to See You" (nicking the famous "Be My Baby" beat, one of the best musical hat-tips) and "I Bet on Losing Dogs" live alongside gravelly sprints like "A Loving Feeling" and "My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars." St. Vincent hangs over opener "Happy," and she’s a fitting ancestor because there aren’t many other people who can slap beauty and brutality together like pancakes this way. (Sonic Youth could do it, too, and you can hear their spirit in the desert highway rumble of "Dan the Dancer.") It’s versatility achieved through volatility.
"I wanna see the whole world! I don't know how I'm gonna pay rent!"
And while the music is plenty satisfying, the writing is even better. Puberty 2 captures the moment you realize getting older isn’t going to diminish the potency of the feelings that ravaged you when you were a teenager. Growing up just means learning how to deal with them, and that’s a complicated process in its own right. "Once More to See You" traces the outline of a forbidden romance, burning with lust; "A Loving Feeling" is desperate and knows it. "My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars" sounds like an overworked, underpaid young person spontaneously combusting: "I wanna see the whole world! I wanna see the whole world! I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent!" Getting "better" is complicated, too. "Happy" imagines the titular feeling as a houseguest who pumps, dumps, and leaves a ruined apartment in his wake. ("I locked the door behind him, and I turned around to see / all the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea," Mitski sings. "Well, I sighed and mumbled to myself, ‘Again, I have to clean.’") The brittle "Fireworks" suggests you can earn wounds that never heal, no matter how far you run or how hardened your heart becomes. It’s terribly sad, but it’s not morose.
There are plenty of people making strong, scrappy, introspective rock music right now, even if the genre is still working through an overall lull. If you’re looking for melody and a keen observational eye, you can spend time with Frankie Cosmos and Car Seat Headrest; if you prefer your music scorched and speedy, opt for bands like White Lung and PUP instead. There’s an entire galaxy of ambitious post-emo stuff waiting to be explored. And while there have never been more "good" bands demanding chunks of your time, no one’s really broken through as this next generation’s mainstream representative.
Mitski might be a little too abrasive to grab that torch, but her talent is undeniable. Puberty 2 is funny, pretty, and pointed as a dagger, and even its minor moments find a way to stick with you. (I’m in love with this line from "A Loving Feeling," delivered with a sneer and two middle fingers held high: "Holding hands under a table, meeting up in your bedroom / Making love to other people, telling each other, ‘It’s all good.’") The album explodes with personality. If you have a long drive with nothing to think about looming in your future, make sure you have it ready and waiting.