We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
On “A Burning Hill,” the final song on Mitski Miyawaki’s Puberty 2, she sings, “Today I will wear my white button-down / I can at least be neat / Walk out and be seen as clean / And I'll go to work and I'll go to sleep / And I'll love the littler things.” The gentle, fingerpicked song meditates on routine, the business of living at its most uncomplicated, the small spaces of control and care we have in our lives. She frames repetition as peace, a bulwark against the inescapable and difficult parts of life that turn her mind into a “forest fire.” Much of the music on her fourth album carries this analgesic quality, layered between its earth-shaking power chords and menacing synth undertow. Small, memorable details add texture to Mitski’s precise meditations on how quickly and easily happiness can leave you, often just as soon as you think you have it nailed down.
That bittersweet lesson feels essential now, as 2016 crashes into the garbage. Mitski intuited it better than most artists, and in response operated as a force of good — not only through her music, which speaks eloquently and absolutely to her dedicated fan base, but also through her engaging social media presence. Mitski frequently retweets fans and sends out positive affirmations. After Trump was elected in November, she connected fans with one another through her Twitter account as a support system, in case they felt vulnerable going to or from her shows — an earnest corrective to Twitter’s (and the country’s) more virulent tendencies this year. When it became hard for many to navigate what to do next, how to help, where to go when they felt hopeless, Mitski used her platform to provide reassurance and resources.
With Puberty 2, Mitski’s songwriting has become its own essential source of nourishment. Take opener “Happy,” in which she personifies happiness as a passing visitor: “Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way / I poured him tea and he told me, ‘It'll all be OK,’” she sings. By the second verse, we hear how fleeting the relationship is: “I was in the bathroom, I didn't hear him leave / I locked the door behind him and I turned around to see / All the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea / Well, I sighed and mumbled to myself, ‘Again, I have to clean.’” Giving a wry voice to internal dialogues and anxieties about the porous line between joy and sadness feels like powerful work in a freshly dispirited, hostile America. For many, the labor of tending to one's own mental well-being carries a new, heavier weight. Where so much music this year wrestled head-on with injustices both personal and political, Mitski stood out for her plainspoken, cathartic admissions of inadequacies and fear.
That Mitski translates these missives through seemingly ordinary activities or objects only grounds them further, something she appears to be mindful of. In an interview around the release of her previous album, 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski spoke on writing about love and death directly: “When you’re expressing love, it’s hard to understand it unless it’s connected to something compound and real. ... Growing up, I was confronted with a lot of moments when ‘the everyday’ was very precious or what it was all about.” On Puberty 2, this method is especially perceptive, adding a deeper layer of universality to conflicting and anguished emotions. “I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent,” she wails over an abrasive, distorted guitar on “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” just before voicing one of the album’s most sardonic, painfully relatable moments: “I better ace that interview / I should tell them I’m not afraid to die.”
While it's nothing as obvious as an explicit concept album, nearly every song here focuses on an up or down of encroaching adulthood. Puberty 2 is filled with feelings of never knowing whether you’re enough, or successful, or happy, especially in relationships. “Crack Baby” conflates drug addiction with being in love, a discerning metaphor for Mitski’s brand of self-lacerating romance: Addictive personalities are often indiscriminately destructive, leveling years of your life before you realize it, no matter how the addiction manifests. On the slow-burning “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” she confronts the impulse to go back to situations you know are bad for you: “I always want you when I'm finally fine.” That kind of pain, like maintaining a regimen, can become a fix all its own.
Puberty 2’s perfect, distortion-loaded lead single, “Your Best American Girl,” is the album’s centerpiece, and its best moment of clarity. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do,” she shouts on the chorus, “And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” Here, Mitski homes in on yet another universal theme: irreconcilability. The important parts of our pasts that make us who we are — whether due to culture, upbringing, or class — can become roadblocks in a relationship, where we’re often ready to forsake facets of ourselves in order to make it work with someone else. Where so many songs stoke the enduring idea that love can bridge any chasm, “Your Best American Girl” takes an opposing stance on courtship and how it can fail. It's a song about remaining who you are, and reminding yourself that you cannot be tamped down.
In May, Mitski wrote a note on her Facebook page, pushing back against some critics' reading of the song's heavy, Pinkerton-like chord progressions as simply “[sticking it] to 'the white boy indie rock world.’” Her true intentions, she explained, were more personal: “I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life. ... I used those tropes to accentuate the point that I could use their methods and act like I was of their world, but I would never ever fit.” Dozens of fans commented, detailing their own stories about former partners, how the song made them feel less alone. The top comment is from a fan who describes a relationship that abruptly ended because of class differences between him and a college boyfriend. He explained that he had to relearn how to love himself after the experience, a crushing feeling Mitski airs out in the song. “I just wish you had been around when I was going through that,” he wrote.
That openhearted response to Mitski’s music (which she took the time to respond to personally) is an apt measure of how vital her music feels to me and so many others at this moment. Now especially, we should remember that we need to stick up for our personhood, remind ourselves that there’s humor and beauty to be found in grim situations, keep in mind that neither happiness nor sadness can last forever. Over a brief half an hour, Puberty 2 is a testament to all of that, one that sounds more and more urgent every day. Like “A Burning Hill” closing out with one final choral sigh, Mitski’s work imparts an important lesson: Facing and learning from your failures, sorting out a routine that works for you, and loving the littler things can all combine to create a tonic in the face of so much uncertainty.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Hazel Cills on Beyoncé, White Lung, and women’s songs of horror.