Review Summary: If I could...
Whenever I think of puberty, I'm immediately gripped by an unshakable dread. My formative years, like those of many others, were plagued with loneliness, regret, and a distinct personal hatred that colored everything a dull grey. The specter of personal disdain is attached to puberty almost by definition, and the travails of nascent adults trying to make sense of themselves and others has given birth to hundreds of musical styles and subgenres. All of that is to say that the subject has been thoroughly and exhaustively explored, and saying something new or interesting on the subject seems near impossible. With this in mind, Mitski
's Puberty 2
defies all expectation or logic by being something daring, unique, and, above all, essential
Part of this uniqueness is Mitski herself. Her voice holds an amazingly versatile cadence, one that shifts effortlessly between hard-nosed pop rocker and vulnerable girl-group member. She's credible both in snarl and swoon, and this gives her songs a baseline emotional core. Her voice also works to give her lyrics--which trend towards the resigned and confessional--grit. When her voice cracks ever so slightly in the lead up to the chorus of "Crack Baby," there's a palpable sense of longing that belies the song's resigned lyrics and dour composition. When she says she's "not even a star" on "Your Best American Girl" (a song so good it makes the entire album worth buying), the self-deprecation emerges as something more rounded, more three-dimensional. Mitski's use of her voice as both a delivery method for the lyrics and as an additional (sometimes contradictory) emotional layer is something to marvel, especially in an age where rock music's premier vocalists tend to eschew nuance in favor of stadium-filling vocal runs and soaring choruses.
That's not to say that "Puberty 2" doesn't pack a punch. Lead single "Your Best American Girl," one of this year's best songs, boasts an A1 verse-chorus composition. The dynamic composition makes it extremely catchy, and I'm surprised (and a bit worried) that it's not made a stronger play for "Song of the Summer." "Dan the Dancer" also has the kind of raucous composition that begs for continuous radio play. These songs share a similar alt-rock feel, but they far from define the entire album. Softer moments lend the album a varied, if uneven, palette. "Crack Baby" and "A Burning Hill" swap out amped guitars and live drums for synths and drum machines, and the switch creates an intimacy and sobriety that the more poppy cuts lack.
But this variety may be the album's biggest weakness. Despite the eclectic set of songs, the album never quite sells a complete narrative idea. The title itself sells the idea of a more explicit narrative slant, and the album never delivers. It doesn't help that the album's criminally short--clocking in at a little over 30 minutes--and this brevity makes it feel more like a highlights playlist cut from a longer, more complete album. It can, and should, be argued that a short playlist of good-to-great songs is still a collection of good-to-great songs
While "Puberty 2" is too short and too scattershot to be an instant classic (as many other reviews have hailed it to be), it does stand as one of this year's best rock albums. I've tried to go through this review without talking about Mitski's unique position as an Asian-American woman in a white-male-dominated industry (an attribute she herself brings up frequently in interviews and on Twitter), but it must be noted, if only as another point in the album's favor. Mitski has made a record that lends voice to a particular experience and particular subject position that rarely if ever gets a popular platform in rock music. She talks about her coming to grips with her identity, her depression, her troubles, and her triumphs, and she does so in a way that no other person in contemporary rock music does. That alone makes "Puberty 2" worth a spin, if not hundreds more.