Mitski lays out the premise of her new album, Puberty 2, exactly seven seconds in. Neatly laid over the skitter of drum machine ambience, the New York-based musician sighs, “Happy came to visit me.”
There’s a lot to unpack over the duration of the album’s opening track (and arguable thesis), bleakly titled “Happy”: the perpetual quest for it (which she defined in an interview with NPR as “skewed more towards ecstasy rather than contentment”), the grim aftermath of discovering its ephemerality and even the extended metaphor of it as a shitty bedfellow.
But Puberty 2, Mitski’s fourth studio album — and first with indie imprint Dead Oceans — does so with aplomb, a breathtaking eulogy to happiness (or the lack thereof) wrapped around her most striking sonic compositions.
Where her excellent 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek documented the emotional turmoil of a self-appointed “tall child,” Puberty 2 rests on the routine discontent that lingers throughout young adulthood.
Puberty’s grim, 20-something sequel isn’t much better, a point Mitski nuances throughout the album with the same emotional ebbs and flows implicated by the notion of puberty. It’s filled with the same boundless, direct urgency, too. Still, the details are plainer, befitting a to-do list more than the weighty romanticism of a song from Bury Me.
The gorgeous “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” with its meek harmonized coos and droned-out dream pop songcraft, likens failed lovers to losing racedogs in a roundabout way, until its last third, where the dreamy noise distorts into harshness and the pretense is dropped. But the shift from “Losing Dogs” to punk manifesto “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is total whiplash: In the album’s token moment of pure catharsis, self-destructive abandon is weighed down by woes of bills and job interviews.
Nowhere is the dulled-out urgency embedded in Puberty 2 more clear, however, than on the album’s thematic centerpiece, “Fireworks.” Over a strum that recalls former labelmate Waxahatchee, Mitski states matter-of-factly, “One morning, this sadness will fossilize and I will forget how to cry.” It’s as if the kettle of anxiety has already boiled over and she’s merely left with a spill to clean up.
In some regards, Puberty 2 is cut from the same sonic cloth as its indie rock peers. “Thursday Girl,” for instance, could be tucked neatly alongside the works of Angel Olsen or fellow New York-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Or the cavernous pomp of album showstopper “Once More to See You” — with her gentle, minor-key pleas, she borrows from the same well of “Be My Baby” homage that fueled balladry from acts like the Magnetic Fields to Best Coast.
But the broad web of homage and influence is so seamlessly interwoven by Mitski and longtime collaborator and producer Patrick Hyland that ultimately, Puberty 2 ends up a singular vision by a singular musician.
And to her, that’s precisely the point.
“I could use their methods and act like I was of their world, but I would never ever fit,” she explained in a Facebook post published in late May, an effort to clarify the driving intent behind her album’s first single, “Your Best American Girl.”
The song itself holds the hallmarks of ‘90s alt-rock — Blue Album-era Weezer with the brutal directness of Liz Phair’s anti-anthem “Fuck and Run.” But Mitski’s individual flourishes — her voice the calm of her screeching guitar storm — never waver, leaving her as the song’s emotional core. She places herself as the fulcrum of the song, the “best American girl” no longer beholden to anyone.
In the white, often male, indie rock space, then, “Your Best American Girl” is not an homage as much as it is an upheaval; it’s a subtle undertaking of the genre in which she ultimately prevails.
By the time Mitski reaches the brink of collapse on album closer “A Burning Hill,” Puberty 2 ends not with a bang, but a fizzle. “I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll love the littler things,” she says in the song’s final moments. It’s hard to tell whether that’s her crushed denouement or a tiny victory, but in experiencing the throes of Puberty 2, that might be enough.
Mitski is performing at the Starline Social Club on July 8.