listening to “real men” by mitski on repeat and weeping lightly, at target
this must be what people mean by “prayer”
i think mitski’s music may be encouraging me in my masochism. much like jesus
— my twitter, December 2, 2015
Yes, I was thinking about a boy. Or a man, perhaps — perhaps a real man — I don’t know, because I don’t know him very well. But I wanted him, and I was feeling it, and it hurt. Mitski was helping me to hurt. The song I had going on loop in my earbuds at Target that day, from her first album, Lush, might have been the first of hers to really catch me in the heart, with its acrobatic bounds between bitterness and tenderness, the way her voice is so loaded with emotion that it’s always threatening to pull the song apart completely but doesn’t quite, it holds, and it’s perfect, devastating. It might also be her jazziest song, built on a syncopated piano line, and it follows in the tradition of certain classics of the genre, songs like “My Man”, that savor the pain of love and even plead for degradation at the hands of the beloved. “So little boy, say you want me / ’Cause, well, I can take it / Go ahead, do it, do it,” Mitski sings, or cries, quakingly, and it sounds like she might just as soon be asking him to hit her. The songs on her new album, Puberty 2, don’t sound much like “Real Men” — Mitski has pretty much dropped the jazz in favor of a folk- and punk-tinged indie rock sound — but they do continue to explore ideas about pleasure in pain in love, and they do it more incisively, insightfully, than ever.
Anyone who knows anything about my musical love life won’t be surprised that Mitski has entered it. Consider one of its longest-dwelling inhabitants, Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things, which came my way when I was fourteen or so (in my first puberty). Its first track hits its climax with a line that I would consider tattooing on my fucking body: “You say I choose sadness, that it never once has chosen me,” Jenny Lewis yelps, then “maybe you’re right,” she mutters, resigned. This felt right to me as a teen deep into “teen angst”, or clinical depression, or whatever, without much to point to in the way of a concrete source of the trouble. And the thing is, having the tendency to choose to be sad, observing that in oneself, seems like a pretty good reason to be sad! And isn’t it?
A lot of Mitski’s music deals with this kind of sadness, sadness about being always sad, wanting to perpetually want. Where Lewis says it directly, Mitski gives us metaphors: “I bet on losing dogs / I know they’re losing, and I pay for my place / By the ring,” she sings on Puberty 2’s sixth track, its centerpiece, invoking the trope of the underdog (and the term did originate from dogfighting), but taking it further by rooting for the underdog to lose. “I wanna feel it,” the drama, or melodrama, or the real beauty of heartache, because it is beautiful, these songs and the feelings they evoke are beautiful. Feeling OK feels a lot less interesting, and so: “I always want you when I’m finally fine / How you kneel over me looking in my eyes when I come” — the first few times I heard the song I wasn’t sure if the word was “come” or “cry”, and aren’t they sort of similar? Release, relief.
(It’s interesting, I think, that this song follows “Your Best American Girl” on the record, and yet cheering on the underdog is very American, something that an all-American boy and his best American girl might very well do together. In an interview with Pitchfork, Mitski talks about moving to the U.S. for college after growing up abroad, “flailing” socially due to her lack of familiarity with American dating culture. Reading the interview, I remembered a first date I had with a Chinese woman who had moved to the U.S. in her early twenties and told me she had struggled to navigate Americans’ expectations related to sex and dating. And I was like, “Me too, though. I’m from here?” I’m twenty-five and still not clear on the rules. Anyway, to bet on losing dogs might be to aim at American and rather overshoot the mark.)
Puberty 2, as you can probably guess from its name, is about growing up, the step from adolescence to adulthood, that second stage of clumsily Becoming a Woman. For Mitski, this means a lot of introspective investigation, and then giving all that up to live calmly and presentably in the world. “When I find that a knife’s sticking out of my side / I’ll pull it out without questioning why,” she sings on “Fireworks”, resolving to deal with hurt without thinking too much about it, to pull out the knife rather than, say, twisting it, driving it further in. This shift is, will be, no small feat for Mitski, whose lyrics are full of images of isolation and interiority: the cliff of “Wife”, the “Door” to the self, symbols from her first album that recur on this one’s “Dan the Dancer”, a song that more than any other on the record rewards close listening. There are also plenty of images of childhood here. We crave “pinky-promise kisses”; the naïve fantasy of “kisses like pink cotton candy” gives way to the cold reality of the secret lover “talking to everyone but me.” The opening track, “Happy” (which, like Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain”, presents us with a sought-after emotion personified darkly), sounds like a twisted version of a nursery rhyme, and its lyrics drag us from a childlike tea party abruptly into adulthood — womanhood, especially — which is less about sexuality than it is about responsibility, the responsibility to protect oneself, to lock the door, to clean up after a man, and, not least, to clean up after oneself. (The saxophone on this track feels flat to me, which is perfectly appropriate: “Oh well,” it seems to say.)
Cleanness is a marker of maturity for Mitski, and whereas on the last record it was elusive — “I always wanted to die clean and pretty / But I’d be too busy on working days / So I am relieved that the turbulence wasn’t / Forecasted, I couldn’t have changed anyways,” she last left us with — on Puberty 2 it’s attainable. The closing track, “A Burning Hill”, recalls “Last Words of a Shooting Star” both in its imagery and its stripped-down sound, but there’s a new confidence: “I can at least be neat / Walk out and be seen as clean / And I’ll go to work, and I’ll go to sleep / And I’ll love the littler things.” Adulthood requires turning away sometimes from Life’s Big Questions to focus instead on ironing your shirt, getting a good night’s rest, setting and achieving modest goals and being satisfied with that, and Mitski’s ready to go there, even if she’s not there quite yet. “I’ve been a forest fire / I am a forest fire / I am the fire, and I am the forest / And I am a witness watching it,” she sings, and it’s the most beautiful metaphor for solipsistic psychic masochism, and she’s not sure if it’s behind her yet or not. “I stand in a valley watching it / And you’re not there at all” — that last line might be understood as an accusation against the absent lover, or (I think more interestingly) as an admission of guilt: it’s all me; I do this to myself. I choose sadness, and you have nothing to do with it. And, well. Been there.
Puberty 2 is out today. Buy it. Watch the video for “Happy”. See Mitski live.
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