If you're following the line of Mitski Miyawaki's career, you're tracing the unmistakable arc of a rock star. Once a music composition student at SUNY Purchase releasing light, orchestral singer-songwriter records online, the 25-year-old musician took a daring leap into emotionally raw indie rock on her breakthrough 2014 release, Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Her live shows grew more aggressive — you might see Mitski down on the floor screaming into her guitar, or demanding a love that could "fall as fast as a body from the balcony." With her new album, Puberty 2, her first for independent label Dead Oceans, she pushes forward still, expanding her weary-voiced love songs into moments of transcendent fury.
Mitski's music is for tough-fronting sensitive folks, its brooding rock packaging often containing a vulnerable candy center. But while the songs of Bury Me at Makeout Creek often played like conversations between Mitski and a lover, working out loud through romantic self-doubt and almost unbearable longing, Puberty 2 is more internal — an album jolted by personal realization and steadied by self-knowledge. "Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I finally do," she wails in a rich vibrato on the defiant "Your Best American Girl," about trying to fit into a prescribed ideal of proper, Western femininity. The interiority of Puberty 2 is Mitski's way of cutting through the intoxicating highs of her desires with everyday pragmatism: She’s a woman reasoning with herself. "I want to see the whole world, I want to see the whole world," she sings, her voice rising with intensity on "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars" before countering, "I don't know how I'm going to pay rent." Elsewhere, on the slow-burning, quiet "Once More to See You," she sings that "pinkie-promise kisses" from a lover might tame her emotions, the juxtaposition of such an innocent request adding a layer of youthful naïveté to the song's dramatic momentum.
Puberty 2 triumphs as Mitski's most developed and expansive work to date, embellishing her songs with other sounds and genres. Anxious, ticking drum machines and synthesizers run ominously through "Happy" and "Thursday Girl," bringing Mitski's music closer to the contemporary noise-pop milieu of Xiu Xiu and Parenthetical Girls. A 1960s pop thread runs through "A Loving Feeling," and the martial bass drum of “Once More to See You" recalls "Be My Baby" — a nod that subverts the lovelorn adoration of girl groups, shifting it toward something darker. The tumbling train metaphors and saxophone solo on "Happy" and the quiet-loud attack of "Your Best American Girl," meanwhile, commandeer canonical rock acts from Springsteen to Weezer.
Mitski's songwriting on this album is impeccably tight, favoring structures that begin in quiet spaces and gradually grow bolder. When "Your Best American Girl," "Happy," and "I Bet on Losing Dogs" hit their dramatic crescendos, they sound like moments of divine revelation. Her working tenor is to perform each song as if it were a showstopping finale, and on Puberty 2, you get the sense that she's angling for even bigger live payoffs — the thrill of setting a stage aflame with her stadium-grade riffs.
On the album's most heartbreaking song, “I Bet on Losing Dogs," her voice quivers over the fried-sounding strums of her electric guitar, as a chorus of cooing voices rises behind her: "I know they're losing and I'll pay for my place by the ring / Where I'll be looking in their eyes when they're down." It's not only about recognizing romantic failure, but about unabashedly permitting it, asking those around her to let her fall. While Puberty 2 beautifully outlines painful shortcomings, Mitski's mastery of her craft tells a different story. In lieu of the love she may or may not win, the perfect American girl she cannot be, the rent she cannot pay, Mitski is blazing her own path. We’d be wise to follow.