Friday, July 21, 2017

New to Me No. 4: Mitski, Puberty 2

That's it. Just not squeezing hard enough...
Another artist, another album, another review. Really liked this one, too. The album.

Mitski, Puberty 2

The Gateway Drug
Happy,” a smart, vulnerable vignette with a damned good musical score.

The Backstory
Some songs hook your ear right away. Others gradually draw you in. “Happy” takes Approach No. 2. Lyrically, it’s brilliant: it paraphrases a relationship in just two verses, then comments and elaborates on it over three chorus segments (probably; I listened to it twice in a row just now, and the family’s giving me looks already). In my reading, it speaks to devotion more than love – misplaced devotion, too. It tells the story of a born-rescuer, someone who takes other people’s crap partly out kindness, and partly from a capacity for martyrdom. In the second verse, the mess she describes – and it applies to the room and her life - confirms the anxiety from the first verse.

Also, “Happy” also feels unnervingly affirmative. By that I mean, the “narrator” (yes, part of me hopes that’s not actually Mitski Miyawaki’s day in the life, at least not a current one) walks knowingly into a place where she expects abandonment. She’s OK with it, basically, and scene.

Musically, this tune blows me away. Mitski arranged the song as a progression; the tone, volume, and weight of the rhythm grow with what I took to be the narrator’s certainty about embracing self-defeat. There’s a nice heartbeat effect that builds with the lyrics, until it becomes a throb, but the vocals in this, both in sound and structure, always, always stand out when I hear it.

The Album
I think I’m getting clearer on how I want these to read. At least I hope I’m getting closer. You tell me. At any rate…

Puberty 2 is not something you put on for a party. I put its mood somewhere around three months in into the aftermath of a breakup - when the real excavation of one’s self-doubt begins. It’s for a contemplative space, in other words, something to listen to alone, and to just sit with. Or that’s just mood. I’m only starting to fill in the lyrics, but the ones I catch do listen like some vague sum of helplessness before discontent. Still, caveat lector, “Happy” is the only Mitski song I can dissect with any confidence.

I’d like to pause here to ask, what is the industry standard for reviewing an album? What’s the minimum number of listens? Does it require knowing all the words – or even having theories on them? And what feels like the better boost: a few listens backed by clear intent to have many more, or an exhaustive examination that proves the reviewer’s knowledge of the work?

Being a short-attention-span kinda guy, I’m going with the former. Moving on…

To anyone to argue that Mitski’s too mopey, I give you “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.” That shit’s agitated as the conflicts she parades out a la Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” only it boasts razor edges, both musically and lyrically, while Morissette speaks from a knowing smirk. For all that energy – it’s in the register of addled-acoustic, and on two levels – sure, the thing’s heavy enough with introspection to lean toward moping…then again, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” as much as “Happy” somehow inverts the moping into defiance – as in, sure, I’m mopey, but I’m good, so…why are we talking about this now?

But is she good? That sense of unease, as much as almost anything else, is what I like about Mitski.

I slipped in that “almost” above because nothing about Mitski caught me her like sonically sophisticated vocals. Whether slow song (say, “Thursday Girl”), or a tune with a little more “pep” (say, “Fireworks”), she bends the vocals toward the emotion/lyrics like a goddamn boss – and catching that’s not first listen shit by any means. She communicates mood and emotional pitch nearly perfectly, so you’re invested in the music/story even before you know exactly what it is. That engagement arrests your attention firmly enough to make hearing the words feel worthwhile, somehow, even important, if only to make sure you’re not fucking up (also, you’re fucking up; seriously, no one will put up with you, ever, not like a Mitski narrator).

Beyond that, I just like what the musicality of her vocals, not just the way they match the music, but how deftly she uses different vocal patterns to shift the tone (thinking the chorus from “Fireworks”). In some cases, the vocals feel like they anticipate the music – see, “Thursday Girl.”

Puberty 2’s not a love-fest for me from first track to last, so much as it’s a peaks-and-valleys exploration of a specific form of disappointment. Predictably (for anyone who follows this project), I struggle with a couple down-tempo, low-affect tunes, even as I appreciate the aural effect of low-affect music (“I Bet on Losing Dogs” stands out there). That’s hardly a universal, however, as I count “Thursday Girl” as one of my clear favorites from the album. Still, the clearest connection to my wavelength comes with a couple of the scolding refrains in “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” (e.g., her wailing “I work better under a deadline” sounds like a kind of truth that I’ve accidentally arranged my life around).

At any rate, Puberty 2 is a great album. Even the songs I didn’t mention (e.g., “A Loving Feeling” and "Your Best American Girl"; and, for the record, far better video work than what she did with "Happy") are good, so I’d count this album as worth just about anyone’s time. Unless you’re in need of a pick-me-up. And there’s a weirdness to that, in that Mitski sounds like she’d yank off her own arm if she thought it’d make you feel better. Even though that’s highly unlikely to make anyone actually feel better.

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