Puberty 2 opens with “Happy.” Against delicate, intricate music, Mitski sings, eerie and ethereal. Initially, the lyrics seem settled in the mundane: “Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way/ I poured him tea and he told me it’ll all be okay.” If it’s the contrast between the spooky and the plain that initially grabs the attention, the track insinuates itself further with its lurking abstractions, led by the anthropomorphizing of a highly coveted emotion. The music introduces itself as fairly standard aching indie rock. Then it drills to a deeper level.
The fourth full-length from Mitski Miyawaki, who sticks with her first name for performing purposes, is a fascinating blend of intense emotions and coy withdrawal. It feels like a soul cracked open, but only to deliver more mystery, as if the inner self can’t really be known by anyone scrutinizing it from the outside. That could very well be the point. Mitski has chafed a bit at attempts by music writers and others to offer up definitive interpretations of the resonant meaning of individual songs or the album as a whole. Meaning is fluid, and purpose is not for those standing outside of the creative process to name.
This is the sort of material that’s often presented in stripped-down forms: a voice, a guitar, wan melodies, rhythms that dissolve like mist. Puberty 2 is hardly epic in its sounds, but Mitski is a crafty sonic explorer. I’m fond of the punky indifference to tuneful niceties on “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and the bendy tones of “Thursday Girl.” At a punchy minute-and-a-half, “A Loving Feeling” is like the Modern Lovers with an injection of up-to-the-minute buzz. The restlessness doesn’t always work — “Crack Baby” hovers around the notion of a song without ever becoming one — but tireless daring in undoubtedly preferable to the alternative.
The more tender music is, the more likely it is that it’s cast as confession. On the lovely, drifting “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” Mitski sings, “I’ll be there on their side/ I’m losing by their side.” The impulse is to characterize that as the prevailing mood of the performer, a helpless expression of existential agony. For the countless listeners who will clasp the sentiments of the song to their chest like a locket that carries heartbroken memories, such revelatory truthfulness can feel like a necessity. How can Mitski speak for them if she doesn’t speak for herself? I fall prey to that predilection, too. In ways I can’t quite pinpoint, Puberty 2 makes the case that such insistence on transparent genesis is deeply misguided. The album succeeds because it is what it is. Where it came from is beside the point.