Puberty 2: Mitski and the Growing Pains of Adulthood

by Nicole Mo

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The first track on Mitski Miyawaki’s new album Puberty 2 opens with just a drum machine playing rapid-fire under restrained vocals. The song builds—pulsing synths, ripples of guitar, and full-throated sax gather to a gorgeous shattering of the constructed stasis. The first 90 seconds of “Happy” is an aural telescope, journeying from a single percussion to an entire universe of sound: it reflects the vast scope of the album’s detail-grounded sketches of love and adulthood. Musically and lyrically, the phenomenal Puberty 2 exposes the abstract expanse of human experience by forcing us to peer through the most intimate of peepholes.

Whereas predecessor Bury Me At Makeout Creek explored Mitski’s messy existence as a “tall child,” Puberty 2 sheds young defiance and sinks into the quieter but equally despairing world of adulthood. Mitski emphasizes this transition through a noticeable tonal shift, retooling the instrumentals that deftly painted youthful pandemonium in Bury Me. Aggression that once concocted a dense cloud of frenetic adolescence now pushes Mitski’s vocals forward rather than around, carving into the negative space with a focus and maturity that effortlessly (and rightfully) pulls Mitski’s distinctive voice front and center.

Puberty 2 is essentially a coming-of-age that answers the reckless pursuit of emotional highs with dark deadpan: the higher you go, the farther the inevitable drop. Dry humor tints the wistful apathy of “Fireworks,” in which Mitski resigns herself to a life of routine–go to work, go for a jog, go to bed–as she reconciles with the fossils of once-vibrant emotions.  A hysteria of guitar shares the spotlight with indie-punk shrieks in “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” capturing the anxious paralysis of pining for adventure but being confined to worrying about an interview. “Happy,” the abovementioned opener, is a song-long metaphor following the eponymous lover’s euphoric, ephemeral stay in Mitski’s company. A nonchalant lament over cleaning up after Happy’s departure illuminates the messy futility of chasing such an unsustainable emotional bliss. “Crack Baby,” the penultimate and longest track on the album, is the thematic culmination of its predecessors. The most innocent and coveted of emotions—love, exhilaration, happiness—are as damaging and untenable as a drug addiction. Adulthood, to Mitski, is approaching such emotions, which seized us uncompromisingly in adolescence, with a wariness that allows them no such victory over us now.

As the lead single, “Your Best American Girl” asserts itself unequivocally, exuding both vulnerability and brashness in an explosion of sound. The instrumentals build so gradually that you don’t even realize that Mitski has gone from a single guitar to a full-set band until the satisfyingly dizzy chorus and following instrumental bridge. Disillusioned with the emotional payoff of romance, Mitski creates a hesitant but galvanizing anthem for self-love: her all-American boy’s mother might not approve of how she was raised, but she herself finally does, and self-acceptance has a longer shelf life than love.

“A Burning Hill,” the last track on Puberty 2, clocks in as the shortest at 1:50. Mitski assumes a quiet croon, the instrumentals remain tempered, the song emanates mild melancholia, but it’s a gentle storm of unexpected empowerment. Singing “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,” Mitski embraces self-love more tenderly than in “Your Best American Girl.” With the bittersweet “And I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep / And I’ll love the littler things,” Mitski comes to terms with adulthood in a way that rings just faintly of hope.

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