Mitski’s Puberty 2 Captures the Love and Sadness of Growing up

Marissa Nadler can’t stop quoting her favorite lyrics from this summer standout.

Within the first thirty seconds of “Happy,” the opening track on Puberty 2, Mitski, in a deadpan drawl, wistfully recounts, “I told him I’d do anything/to have him stay with me/so he laid me down and I felt happy/come inside of me/He laid me down and I felt happy.”

Happiness is a fleeting emotion, and that satisfied elation quickly sours as we find Mitski on a post-coital cleaning mission, conquering cookie crumbs, unwashed dishes and mixed emotions. The complexity of this vignette exemplifies a songwriter who is unafraid to show her vulnerability, daring enough to sing of her libidinous urges, and willing to divulge the minutia of her days and the shortcomings of her years — however devastating some of them have been — on a grand scale. Puberty 2 connects deeply because of this daring and openness.

The first time I heard Liz Phair’s 1993 track “Flower” as a teenager, I remember the elation I felt listening to such a fearless and shocking anthem of feminine sexuality. I was similarly moved listening to Mitski’s new album. I can recall what it felt like to be twenty-five, the age that Mitski is now — the revolving door of lovers and disappointments that I had. I remember as well the years before that: the painful humiliations of an awkward puberty, the soul seeking, the rejections and the blinding euphoria of a requited crush. The songs on Puberty 2 suggest Mitski has gone through quite a lot of these small miseries, and demonstrate her ability to take these experiences and channel them into engaging lyrics.

The refreshing thing about this set of songs is that they are neither jaded nor condescending.  These are honest snapshots, and they resonate so well with me — and likely will with many, many people — because of their emotional complexity. In “Dan the Dancer,” the lyrics are astoundingly romantic: “So when he moved with you/and felt his body let go/of course you couldn’t know/it was you and you alone that he had/shown his bedroom dancer to.” On the girl-group-of-yesteryear-styled “Once More to See You,” one of the album’s many standouts, Mitski vividly recounts that overwhelming drug-like haze that comes with fresh love: “In the rearview mirror/I saw the setting sun/on your neck/and felt the taste of you/bubble up inside me.”

Along with love, sadness (emptiness, melancholy, ennui, depression — whatever you want to call it) is one of the other major themes of this album. “One morning this sadness will fossilize,” Mitski sings on “Fireworks,” perhaps my favorite collection of lyrics on the record.  “I will go jogging routinely/calmly and rhythmically run/and when I find that a knife’s sticking out of my side I’ll pull it out without questioning why,” she adds. Sadness never goes away. It hardens and settles in. You learn to live with it; you keep a schedule, you attempt to keep the fire from boiling up.

“Crack Baby” is another one of my favorite songs on this record. Melodically, it’s one of the catchiest. Lyrically, it’s one of the most devastating: “It’s been a long, hard twenty-year/summer vacation/All these twenty years/trying to fill the void. …/Went to your room thinking/maybe I’ll feel something/but all I saw was your/burning body waiting/all these twenty years.”

Sadness never goes away. It hardens and settles in. You learn to live with it; you keep a schedule, you attempt to keep the fire from boiling up.

Mitski — who was born in Japan but grew up all across East Asia and beyond — also delivers the outsider anthem of the decade with “Your Best American Girl,” the stunning centerpiece of the album: “Your mother wouldn’t approve/of how my mother raised me/but I do, I think I do/And you’re an all-American boy/I guess I couldn’t help/try to be/your best American girl/You’re the one/you’re all I ever wanted/I think I’ll regret this.”

Mitski may be tackling political and racial stereotypes in this song, but the themes are widely applicable beyond the specifics. Anyone who has ever felt they haven’t fit in — in a job or a school or a country — whether because of their race or religion or appearance, etc. can likely find something to relate to in this song. In a recent interview with The Line of Best Fit, Mitski said, “Even when I’m in a scene I don’t think of myself as being in the scene. I’m very conscious of myself being an outsider.” Mitski succeeds in tapping into what it feels like to be an outsider, a pariah — to live on the periphery.

It’s really refreshing to see someone such as Mitski call out the indie-rock cool-kids club and raise the stakes with such a refreshingly pure and honest album. There isn’t a dud on this album. It’s incredibly thoughtfully and subtly produced. It is deeply rewarding on multiple listens. This piece would go on too long if I were to continue to write down my favorite lyrics and the reasons why I like them. Just go and do yourself a favor: buy it and listen to it and be moved.

(Photo credit: Ryan Walsh)

Marissa Nadler is a musician, painter and animator based in Massachusetts. She has recorded seven studio albums. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

(Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz)