“I am a forest fire,” Mitski Miyawaki sings on “A Burning Hill,” the last song on her new album, Puberty 2. “I am the fire and I am the forest and I am the witness watching it.” I can’t imagine a better way to describe what Mitski does. Her great subjects are all interior: Sadness, fear, depression, the ever-elusive nature of happiness and inner peace. The way she sings it, she is at once the destroyer and the one being destroyed. And she’s also the distant figure watching it, describing what she sees. You won’t find many primal howls of pain on a Mitski album. Instead, she’s found playful, faraway, sometimes even funny ways to sing about the sorts of feelings that can just gut you. She’s a tough and meticulous writer, but her lyrics are only a part of the story. There’s also her voice, an icy deadpan that, at times, takes on the same precise phrasing you’d expect to find in a jazz singer. And there’s also the music, made entirely by Mitski and her producer Patrick Hyland. It’s a quiet, personal, oblique take on indie rock with a beauty and an aesthetic sensibility that’s entirely its own. Puberty 2 is one of those exceedingly rare moments where all three come together to make something bracing and exhilarating and new. It’s an album with a quiet, profound force to it, a huge leap forward from an already promising artist.
It feels inexact and misleading to call Puberty 2 an indie rock album. It’s not a monochromatic, dudes-playing-in-a-room-together affair. There’s no freewheeling abandon, no sense of underground community animating it. Even in its wildest moments, it’s painstakingly assembled and planned-out. There are moments of great rock catharsis, especially on the single “Your Best American Girl,” one of the straight-up best indie rock songs I’ve heard in years. But those moments are layered with meaning. “Your Best American Girl” is a song about not belonging, not living up to someone else’s ideal. And she’s written about how the song uses white-boy indie rock tropes, maybe partly subconsciously, to highlight and comment on the ways those tropes don’t fit her. She’s a woman, she’s not white, and she grew up overseas, which means she can’t access the myths behind those tropes the same way a white guy could. It’s a big, sad, powerful rock song that’s also, in some ways, a commentary on the state of the big, sad, powerful rock song — on who it’s by, who it’s for, what it means. It’s a complicated thing on a whole album full of complicated things.
There’s some precedent for Puberty 2, perhaps, in the more obliquely tuneful underground rock of the ’90s; the Breeders and Helium are the first people who come to mind, even though Mitski never really sounds like either of them. But there’s also the lyrical sensibility: a fierce poetic take on the LiveJournal musings of mid-’00s emo, which, given Mitski’s age (25), is probably a much bigger influence than Helium. On album opener “Happy,” for instance, she sings about happiness as a house guest, a man who stays too long and leaves a mess behind him. When he shows up, she never wants him to leave. When he leaves, she’s maybe not so sure she wants to see him again: “I was in the bathroom / I didn’t hear him leave / I locked the door behind him / And I turned around to see / All the cookie wrappers / And the empty cups of tea / Well, I sighed and mumbled to myself / Again, I have to clean.”
Mitski is never afraid to turn her unflinching real talk on the people in her life: “What do you do with a loving feeling if the loving feeling makes you all alone?” she asks, before accusing someone directly: “You only love me when we’re all alone.” But she’s more likely to tap into deep veins of her own anxiety: “I better ace that interview / I better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die / I better ace that interview.” And she also gets into the way depression can feel like a dull thrum, rather than an open sore: “One morning, this sadness will fossilize / And I will forget how to cry / I’ll keep going to work, and you won’t see a change / Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.” And while I’m just cherrypicking lines here, I’m not getting at the cumulative force of a song like “Once More To See You,” a Jane Austen/Wong Kar-Wai-level story about concealed passion, albeit one that includes the phrase “come inside and be with me,” with all the double-meanings that it might imply.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Puberty 2 is the way the level of music matches the level of writing. Mitski went to school for music composition, and she’s found ways to invest lo-fi music with the same attention to detail that you’d hear in the sharpest big-pop record. At various moments, she takes on Lynchian torch-song balladry, scratchy acoustic singer-songwriter music, and ragged, driving punk rock. It touches so fleetingly on so many styles of music, in fact, that it keeps you on edge, unsettled. That can’t be an accident. This isn’t freewheeling, improvisational music. Nobody jammed to make this record. Instead, there’s serious intention to when, say, the cheap blaring keyboard comes in, or when the pulsating electronic drums of “Happy” give way to an eruption of saxophone.
A while back, there was a reissue of Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville that came with a making-of documentary. In one scene, producer Brad Wood talked about the way, for instance, sleigh bells come in halfway through “Fuck And Run.” I’d never consciously noticed those sleigh bells, but they make the song, and I think of that whenever I think of the way a tiny, beautifully planned-out sonic detail can turn a great song into an all-timer. I’d love to watch a documentary like that about Puberty 2. It’s an album full of moments like that. A lot of thought went into every aspect of this album, and it’ll take a lot more thought to unpack all of it. And this is an album that will reward all the work you put into it. It’s special like that.
Puberty 2 is out 6/17 on Dead Oceans. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• YG’s hard-ass G-funk revival Still Brazy.
• Swans’ current-lineup swan song The Glowing Man.
• Told Slant’s herky-jerk emo attack Going By.
• Margaret Glaspy’s blues-rocker Emotions And Math.
• Palmistry’s dancehall-influenced pop brooder Pagan.
• Red Hot Chili Peppers’ arena-alt comeback The Getaway.
• Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs’ supergroup debut case/lang/veirs.
• Ali Beletic’s romantic, nomadic Legends Of These Lands Left To Live.
• Neil Young’s environmental concept LP Earth.
• Weaves’ self-titled bent-pop debut.
• DJ Shadow’s schizophrenic return The Mountain Will Fall.
• Gojira’s grand prog-metaller Magma.
• RYLR’s shoegaze-metal debut Relayer.
• Caveman’s dependable indie-popper Otero War.
• Nails’ furious churn You Will Never Be One Of Us.
• Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers’ forever-smooth Rehab Reunion.
• T.O.L.D.’s atmospheric debut It’s Not About The Witches.
• FAWNN’s glimmering rock debut Ultimate Oceans.
• Will Butler’s live album Friday Night.
• G.L.O.S.S.’s Trans Day Of Revenge EP.
• Todd Terje & The Olsens’ The Big Cover-Up EP.
• Son Lux’s Stranger Forms EP.
• Ross From Friends’ You’ll Understand EP.
• The Craters’ Kids Can Tell EP.
• Spook The Herd’s Small Wins EP.
• Gonzo Jones’ Misty Dreams EP.
• The Dove And The Wolf’s I Don’t Know What To Feel EP.
• Free Pizza’s Berlin, DE EP.
• PAWS’ No Grace tape.