Mitski’s ‘Puberty 2’: An Endless Dance Between Happiness and Its Absence

“Happy came to visit me,” sings Mitski Miyawaki to open her fourth album, Puberty 2. “He bought cookies on the way/ I poured him tea and he told me it’ll all be OK/ I told him I’d do anything to have him stay with me/ So he laid me down, and I felt Happy/ Come inside of me.” It’s a striking opening, as much as anything else for its personification of happiness as a person, an actual tangible figure with whom one can lay down on a sunny afternoon. The presence and absence of “Happy” dominate Puberty 2, and not in as straightforward a manner as one might expect.

Ostensibly, at least, the majority of the songs on Puberty 2 are about love — they relate tales of relationships breaking and broken, tales that appear both deeply personal and remain universally relatable. They carry the sense of their creator as eternal outsider; it’s a theme made explicit in lead single “Your Best American Girl”, whose excellent lyrics and similarly excellent video allude to Miyawaki’s experience as an Asian American, exploring the alienation of what it means to be a “real” American.

As the album progresses, though, you get the sense that these perhaps are less songs about being with a literal, actual lover, and more about being with “Happy”, the feeling that love brings. The notable thing about these songs is that they suggest that Happy perhaps isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be — that happiness is the true love we all chase, to varying extents, and that like any lover, he can talk and think and feel… and ultimately betray you.

It’s a fascinating inversion of a more familiar songwriting trope, namely the personification of depression. There’s a certain comfort to depression, in its own curious way, something that other songwriters have noted over the years — Art Garfunkel famously greeted darkness as “my old friend,” and Elliott Smith greeted his depression as another anthropomorphized figure, a “Miss Misery” to whom he “come[s] back when you want me to.” Mitski turns this idea on its head, but perhaps not its implications: if depression is an ex to whom you return again and again, even when you know it’s a bad idea, then happiness is a challenge, a figure whose presence is as anxiety-inducing and exhausting as it is exciting.

For anyone prone to depression and/or introversion, this is a familiar conundrum: even if human interaction is pleasurable, it’s exhausting. Extroverts tend to absorb energy from being with others; for introverts, it’s always an effort, even if the payoff is edifying, and it’s even more so if you’re feeling down. To my ears, that feeling permeates Puberty 2, although this might just be a case of projecting my experience onto a record that invites one’s own interpretation.

Either way, though, there’s a more universal fear realized in the personification of happiness as a lover: like any lover, Happy can leave, and when he does, you’ll be left all the sadder and more alone. This is a deal that we all make with ourselves when we enter into relationships, consciously or otherwise — there’s a tacit understanding that you’re putting yourself in a situation that will almost inevitably, sooner or later, cause you pain. And still we do it anyway, because the alternative seems worse: a life where Happy never comes to visit at all, where all you’re left with is the familiar emptiness of his absence.

Puberty 2 is at its best when it really gets into exploring this contradiction: “A Loving Feeling” finds her asking “What do you with a loving feeling/ If the loving feeling makes you all alone?” Earlier in the album, on “Fireworks”, she envisages herself “married to silence/ The gentleman won’t say a word.” And on “Thursday Girl,” she explains that “I’m not happy or sad, just up or down/ And always bad.” There’s a sense here of an eternal dance between happiness and its absence, and it’s ultimately unclear which is the more stressful and difficult. Love never gets any less complicated, really.