“Happy” is the title of the first song on Mitski‘s fourth album, Puberty 2. It’s a destination for the Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, an elusive end goal. Yet in the song, “Happy” is personified as a suitor that says all the right words and arrives bearing gifts: “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 in the opening lines. In short order, the encounter turns sexual, and “Happy” splits. The comedown is bad. We’re talking fuck-this-shit I’m-done-with-actually-having-a-heart bad: “When you go, take this heart/I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you.” Were the song not so catchy, nor sung so sweetly, it would almost certainly feel like the summer’s bleakest song.
You could say that putting discomfort into accessible, beautiful and even fun contexts is Mitski’s wheelhouse. That’s not to say it’s exclusively a sad album. Like the period of biological and psychological transition that the album’s title refers to, Puberty 2 is an acknowledgement of uncomfortable truths and epiphanies through the lens of adulthood. There are few moments of joy or celebration, but in their stead is growth and understanding. On the album’s first single, “Your Best American Girl,” she exits a relationship by embracing her own identity and background rather than the one she might have sought to adopt for herself: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do.” She ends up much the same way she does on “Happy”: Alone. But this time she finds solace in familial and self-love, rather than a vacancy inside her chest.
Mitski fills the space between hope and despair with concise yet utterly gorgeous melodies that run the gamut from playful to intense, mournful to manic. The fuzzy acoustic strums of 93-second highlight “A Loving Feeling” underscore a sing-song lament of “What do you do with a loving feeling when a loving feeling leaves you all alone?” Slowed-down and stripped back, it might pass for a vintage country cry-in-your-beer ballad, but here it’s punk rock—it’s cathartic. More immediately melancholy and sensual in its arrangement is “Crack Baby,” which compares a personal connection to a cocaine high against a Portishead-like dirge. Yet the most satisfying climax on the album belongs to “Fireworks,” in which a powerful pulse of piano and rising drum machine beat parallels the explosion of emotions that she’s tried so hard to quell.
In the album’s final track, the brief “A Burning Hill,” she finds a resolution, but it’s not exactly a happy ending. “I’ll go to work, and I’ll go to sleep,” she sings. “And I’ll love the littler things.” When the big thing is gone—when the “Happy” that she seeks might never walk back through the door—it’s those littler things that give a reason to even get out of bed in the morning. With Puberty 2, Mitski puts that struggle deep into focus, rendering despair and discomfort into something cleansing and powerful. Even when it seems like it’s never going to get better, Mitski turns around and creates something that is.