“I work better under a deadline”
Everyone’s said something like that, right? We all want to think that we perform at our peak when we have a set goal in front of us. But, I’m going to venture a guess that you didn’t follow that up with “I’ll pick an age where I’m gonna disappear.” 25-year old, Japanese-born, New York-based indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki did. On “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” she chalks up her inertness to the fact that there’s no apparent timer on her life. Whatever “disappear” may mean in this context, that’s a hell of a statement. On her fourth album, Puberty 2, Miyawaki wraps off-kilter, staggeringly insightful truths in a brand of indie rock that’s at once eminently familiar and wildly adventurous.
From Puberty 2's outset, Miyawaki—who releases music under the mononym Mitski—sends a burst of mixed messages. Despite the anodyne title, “Happy” begins the album in a way that can only be described as unsettling. Hammering drum machine and distorted vocals present an anecdote about a visit from “happy” which concludes with the lines
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
Naturally, she promptly launches into a sprightly chorus as if nothing had happened.
Welcome. That’s your introduction to Puberty 2.
I was immediately reminded of the gauche frankness of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Communist Daughter.” There’s a discomfort generated by that kind of brutal literalism—rather than the usual desire to wrap sex in metaphor— that immediately put me off balance. It’s a gamble that will turn some listeners away, but if you shrug off the hit and return to “Happy,” you’ll find a gently lilting rocker that comes out of nowhere and sounds a lot like St. Vincent at her most straightforward. That initial shock takes your defenses down and primes you to be more receptive of what Puberty 2 has to offer. The oddities Mitski explores over the rest of the album’s 30 minutes sound positively mundane by comparison.
Brief as the album is, Mitski burns through an enormous amount of musical territory. She goes from swaying 50’s/60’s rock balladeering on “Once More to See You” to the snarling, knife’s edge punk of the aforementioned “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” leaving few corners of rock music history unexplored. The resulting mélange comes together to form an album that maintains a certain cohesion. Though she cycles through inspirations ranging from Neutral Milk Hotel to St. Vincent to Bikini Kill, she tinges everything with her own unique sound—an Instagram filter of gauzy production, slightly overpowering bass, and chunky guitar—in such a way that it never feels like she’s outright aping any artist. Her influences are more visible at some times than others, but they never distract or detract from the strength of Mitski’s talent. What’s most striking about Puberty 2 is how tuneful it is. For as bizarre as it can get—and, make no mistake, it gets weird—the core of the album is rooted in memorable melodies and earworm hooks.
All the threads that form Puberty 2 lock together in the standout lead single “Your Best American Girl.” Mitski sets a well-worn torch song to a sweetly weaving melody. Right around the minute mark, an organ, having crept in with a gentle countermelody, begins to swell. Mitski sings “Don’t wait for me, I can’t come” and the track bursts into an enormous, emotional chorus
“Your mother wouldn’t approve
Of how my mother raised me
But I do
I think I do”
Once again, Mitski catches the listener on their back foot, and the result is incredible. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt the overwhelming mixture of joy and sadness I did the first time that chorus hit me. I’d say it’s something in the way the triumphant guitar mixes with Mitski’s melancholy vocal line, but I still don’t think I can really explain its impact. “Your Best American Girl” is the kind of song you stop an album for—I think I had to repeat it 5 or 6 times before moving on to “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” Mitski achieves something like catharsis when she changes “But I do/I think I do” to “But I do/I finally do” in the second chorus, before easing the track down with one last, gentler repetition of the chorus. It’s masterful work. If nothing else about this description of Puberty 2 strikes your fancy, I urge you to at least give “Your Best American Girl” a chance. It’s that good, that affecting, and that essential.
The album takes a fascinating turn into more digital territory in the back half. “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” “Thursday Girl,” and “Crack Baby” all feel like outliers in the best possible way. They show an artist who’s untethered from the idea that “indie rock” has to sound a certain way, allowing Mitski to push herself and the genre to interesting places. By the end of “Thursday Girl” the 808-influenced beat merges with grungy guitars and eerily processed vocals in one of the more musically striking mish-mashes on the album. Rollicking cuts “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and “A Loving Feeling” ensure that Puberty 2’s “B-Side” never goes too far afield, instilling confidence that wherever she takes you, Mitski knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.
Puberty 2 is one of 2016’s finest albums, and it stands as a reminder that indie rock is very much alive and well. It doesn’t look the way it did 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, but a new generation is putting their favorite music in a blender and coming out with fresh, thrilling new sounds. Mitski continues to evolve into one of the most skilled, adventurous, and insightful songwriters working. On Puberty 2 she uses surprise and peculiarity as weapons, making her audience engage with her music on her terms. She leverages that advantage to present moving, honest, memorable music that’s both comfortingly recognizable and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
Mitski exits with “A Burning Hill.” The closer is a quietly moving resolution to take comfort in the little things. When you have nothing else to hang onto, sometimes the best you can do is be glad that you’re wearing a white button down.
Essential Tracks: “Your Best American Girl,” “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” “Thursday Girl”