Originally published on http://www.13thfloor.co.nz
American Japanese singer-songwriter-musician Mitski Miyawaki is all about happiness on her newest album, Puberty 2. As she says in her publicity blurb: “Happiness is up, sadness is down, but one’s almost more destructive than the other. When you realize you can’t have one without the other, it’s possible to spend periods of happiness just waiting for that other wave.” So that’s the tension she creates throughout this album a mix of both beautiful and brutal romantic hinterlands. “Happy came to visit me, he brought cookies along the way”, she drones against a manic metronomic jackhammer drum beat on the prosaic opener Happy. Immediately you feel just a little depressed by her sullenness, as if this was the masterplan all along. “I poured him tea and he told me it’d be ok.” She applies the same layers of artistic irony and musical clash that you get with the first works of St Vincent. The jagged sax that plays intermittently throughout is only one step away from Bowie’s Let’s Dance. But ‘why’ is unclear.
This is the follow-up to 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, and picks up where that one finished as part 2 of the story: similar in sound, but more a direct growth. The ‘Puberty’ reference is almost like the surly teenager coming out – all contradiction, rage and confusion. That’s clearest in the Pixies-ish guitars on Dan The Dancer which is almost rock grunge funk at times, with a beautiful keyboard drone wig out as the bridge.
Barely 25-year-old this level of knowledge in a young artist is astounding. Once More to See You could not be more different from Dan… floating over a simple 4/4 drum + bass guitar stagger cloaked in so many delicate layers of poetry whispered – “I wouldn’t have to scream you name from every rooftop of my heart” – a song of yearning. Happiness would be the fulfilment. And again it changes on Fireworks to a simple guitar rock song, similar to Pixies/Swerve Driver or even Bob Mould on his acoustic forays. It smoulders along building up to a restrained climax “I listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.” This is not a Katy Perry moment, that’s obvious.
Born in Japan, Mitski grew up surrounded by her father’s Smithsonian folk recordings and mother’s 1970s Japanese pop CDs in a family that moved frequently: she spent stints in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, China and Turkey among other countries before coming to New York to study composition at SUNY Purchase. She reflects now there on the feeling of being “half Japanese, half American but not fully either”. It’s that alien everywhere feeling she that she’s confronting on the clever Frank Black grunge single, Your Best American Girl. It’s an attempt to poke fun at her genre’s surplus of white males. “I wanted to use those white-American-guy stereotypes as a Japanese girl who can’t fit in, who can never be an American girl,” she explains. In an American that living under the spectre of a Trump Administration this could well be all too close to the bone.
Ok, so sadness is awful and happiness is exhausting in the world of Mitski. I Bet On Losing Dogs seems like such a tragic fait accompli, and with lines like “Won’t you kill me in Jerusalem” which she spits out on the punky, abrasive My Body’s Made of Stars it almost seems like she’s taken to standing in the middle of the road screaming at cars. Such is the nihilism. So tracks like the dreaming Crack Baby with its mood of resurrection, and the cinematically wide credit roller A Burning Hill, which both complete the album seem such a stark opposite. In her world happiness is sadness: invigorating, inspiring and beautiful.