Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to hear. Since it was a really slow week, we decided to pick an album from 2016 we think more people need to listen to, and which we haven't written about yet. It's Mitski's Puberty 2.
Indecisiveness has coursed through my veins since the day I was born, but I thrusted Mitski’s Puberty 2 to the top of my own “Best Albums of 2016” list without a second thought, and as we barrel into 2017, I thought this album deserved another small spotlight. I wanted to take this week’s Album of the Week to urge anyone that hasn’t picked up Puberty 2 yet to do so. A little more selfishly, I wanted write about the album that saved me so many times this year, and I needed to thank Mitski.
Despite its release six months ago, Puberty 2 returns to me again and again in so many forms. It knocks on my window during the shaky, sleepless 2:30 a.m. hours, churns in my stomach when I don’t want to live anymore, beats through my head when torn-up friends cry in my arms, and explains so clearly all the foreign feelings that I never saw coming, that I’m not sure anyone sees coming until they happen. Because no one bothers to tell you about the second, more painful puberty of a dawning adulthood in a world that makes no sense.
Your mom gave you cotton to plug the bleeding between your legs. And she gave you deodorant to mask sweat dripping from your new body. And even if your first puberty is hard, schools or guardians go to great lengths to explain what’s happening, to tell you it’s normal. But no one gives you anything to plug your panic when you’re on the floor of your first apartment, wondering if you can pay rent when you can’t even seem to sustain your own happiness long enough to get out of bed. And no one gives you anything to mask your insecurities when you feel like a forest fire burning yourself down and the only thing you can do is stand there and watch. And no one explains what’s happening or assures you you’re not the only one. No one but Mitski, that is.
Much like her work leading up to Puberty 2, Mitski harnesses the crushing reality of reaching adulthood, becoming a full-fledged person and realizing how much pain being a human has to offer and works that into something beautiful. And it’s a rare honest beauty. She doesn’t romanticize or twist the pain, but rather drenches pain in the gore of its own darkness, wringing it into the comfort of having the sounds and words to affirm suffering. Mitski’s emotional vocabulary has evolved from her previous work, from the exasperated wounds of “Drunk Walk Home” or the confused pining of “Francis Forever” into songs that are equally raw, but speak to a new phase, without losing the artistry that always made her great.
“Happy” announces itself with an abrasive synth drum beat that resembles muted, rhythmic rapid fire, echoing the anxieties of fleeting happiness. It mirrors the panic present with joy when you’re familiar with the dangers of the crash that often follows it when you battle mental illness. In the song, happiness is personified as a rude house guest. It’s the hookup that makes us feel less alone for a while, but in the end is only there to cum inside of us and leave empty cups of tea on the nightstand for us to clean the next morning. We learn not to trust happiness anymore, to remember it will leave and we’ll have to pick up the pieces.
We’ve been taught to expel these messy visitors from our lives and replace them with stability, but what if you convince yourself you need them? Mitski understands that the ups, in any form, are addictive. In “Crack Baby,” the highs take the form of a drug: “All these 20 years trying to fill the void; crack baby you don't know what you want, but you know that you had it once, and you know that you want it back.” Audibly, it builds, layer upon layer, but never reaches a climax—it’s a desperate craving of the blind, insatiable need to be satisfied.
And, like in “A Loving Feeling,” even when we have love to give, it goes wasted: “What do you do with a loving feeling if the loving feeling makes you all alone?” Even after repeatedly getting trucked by careless hookups, misguided attempts to connect and complex pseudo-relationships, we just keep getting up, flinging our trust back out there, hoping next time will be different. We “bet on losing dogs,” and have to look them right in the eye when they ruin us again, because we had to go and crave the high of intimacy.
But even buried in the powerless fog of incessant cycling, Mitski cuts through with moments of acceptance, however small. In “A Burning Hill,” she seeks some kind of composure in putting on a white button-down shirt, because maybe she can at least go out into the world and be perceived as “clean.” And eventually she comes to one of the only resolutions grief can lead to: “I’ll go to work, and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll love the littler things.”
The ultimate moment of resolution comes in “Your Best American Girl.” In her artistry, Mitski breaks through the straight cis white male-dominated genre of indie rock, wraps its sounds around her middle finger and throws it back into the genre’s face. Mitski describes the sorrow of realizing that her identity, especially as a half-Japanese woman who’s written out of false political and media narratives of what it means to be “American,” creates fundamental differences that prevent her from being with someone she loves. But in realizing this, Mitski chooses to accept herself: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do. I finally do.”
Mitski’s making indie rock that matters and affirms, and her unparalleled affirmation summits on Puberty 2. It doesn’t obscure or romanticize; it observes and projects. Technical mastery collides with the subversion and progression of an entire genre to create something so raw, beautiful and darkly comforting that it’s let me squeak by through the bleakest moments of my second puberty so far. These songs grew beyond what I thought an album could do, and I wouldn’t even know how to begin to thank her. And unlike our first puberties, I’m not entirely convinced the second one ever ends, so if you’ve slept on Puberty 2, it’ll be there when you inevitably need it.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.