Happiness is a feeling that only makes sense in relation to its opposite: sadness. That’s the idea at the core of Puberty 2, the fourth album by indie singer-songwriter Mitski. It’s a basic concept of human emotion – we need the good to feel the bad, and vice versa – but in Mitski’s hands, it feels like a fresh insight, profound and devastating even at the peaks of joy. On the surface, it’s barely a revelation – it’s essentially misery-laden electric-guitar indie rock, in the style of Cat Power and Waxahatchee – but her nihilist worldview is oddly endearing.
So if the key theme of Puberty 2 is how the expectation of pain can sully life’s pleasures, then opening track ‘Happy’ makes explicit the connection – it can fuck you, literally, as Mitski imagines the concept as a one-night-stand, a heartbreaker that fades into the morning after. It’s a vividly intelligent metaphor, striking but not resting on its own cleverness, while musically it’s a scuzzy indie growler, disguised by a throbbing drum machine and distorted sax solo. Most of Puberty 2 follows a similar pattern: witty metaphors and sophisticated imagery, married to familiar indie-rock stylings. Mitski’s voice is a mix of wounded breathiness and bile-swallowing fury, somewhere between Torres’ guttural snarl and Beth Gibbons’ fragility, but with a subtle emo influence. But make no mistake – this is in many ways, typical of the canon of angry young women with guitars.
Of course, there is far, far worse company to be in than peers like Sharon Van Etten and PJ Harvey. And Puberty 2 stands out for two main reasons. The first is the strength of Mitski’s understanding of dynamics and energy. Small verses and big choruses have been a constant since ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but there are few songs that pay-off rewards in a way like ‘Your Best American Girl’ does as it swells to its climax. Meanwhile ‘The Loving Feeling’ masks its brutal loneliness with a jaunty chorus, an exercise in ironic cruelty.
The second reason is the intimate, electronic-tinted production. Puberty 2 is predominantly a traditional indie album, but it is littered with curious touches: the jarring drums of ‘Happy’, the growling drones of ‘Crack Baby’, the wispy pads hanging over ‘Thursday Girl.’ These moments feel amateurish in the age of Ableton, but there’s a rudimentary authenticity to their use – Puberty 2 feels intimate and raw in its sloppiness, like if Cardigans had recorded Gran Turismo in a bedroom.
The album’s central moment is the pessimistically-titled ‘My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars.’ Grazing a two-minute length, it’s a thunderous storm of everyday struggles and existentialist dread, veering from extremes: ‘I wanna see the whole world/I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent.’ Adolescence is the struggle of change, of figuring out how to fit in a world where nothing fits quite right, of fighting emotions that are hard to understand. The biggest joke of adolescence is how we never quite know when it’s finished, and as Mitski battles with her own demons in a uniquely relatable way, it only makes sense that her album is titled ‘Puberty 2.’ Or as we know it, adulthood.