Puberty hurts. According to Mitski Miyawaki, Puberty 2 hurts even more.
In her newest release (out June 17, 2016 via Dead Oceans), the singer/songwriter strips “coming-of-age” down to the paralyzingly empty plains of adulthood. She sprints from love song to indie anthem to punk diatribe and back again — echoing the biological chaos that her album title references — and we can’t help but be pulled along as she wildly pursues an ever-evolving notion of happiness. Yet no one song describes the raw, bittersweet joys and sorrows of growing up so well as “A Burning Hill,” where Mitski finally stops to survey the land around her.
Watch: “A Burning Hill” – Mitski
The track opens with a fuzzy drone and a sole acoustic guitar; gone are the drum machines and layered synths that texture the rest of the album. Over this sparse background, she croons in a voice heavy with heartache:
Today I will wear my white button down
I’m tired of wanting more
I think I’m finally worn
The music is undeniably warm — a few dying flames, not the burning hill the song is named for. After almost a half hour of ceaseless exploration marked by ecstatic highs and agonizing lows, Mitski has brought us to a quiet resignation. Her exhaustion is evident.
The breakneck pace of Puberty 2 is no accident. In an interview with NPR, Mitski states that she’s “obsessed with trying not only to be happy but maintain happiness,” that “her definition of happiness is skewed more towards ecstasy rather than contentment.” She’s not afraid to acknowledge both her complicity and her helplessness in the face of her own expectations. As she sings:
And I’ve been a forest fire
I am a forest fire
And I am a fire and I am the forest
And I am a witness watching it
we see her raze the trees around her in search of an unsustainable rapture, at once igniting the woods and mourning the ashes. Yet she is able to find peace in the barren place her emotions have left behind. And we, the listeners, find ourselves experiencing a strange closure alongside her. Mitski has the uncanny ability to cut straight to the quick of human feeling — a quality that’s most apparent in “A Burning Hill’s” accompanying music video.
This collection of footage tinged with foliage and melancholy only underscores the bleak beauty of Mitski’s composition. She sits primly on a couch; she taps her fingers in restless patterns; she clenches the starched fabric of her shirt and stares out at the street and walks with her head down. When we see her float corpselike over a lush riverbed, her desolation has taken root in every fiber of our being. And by the time tears form in her eyes, our hearts have already been broken.
“I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll love the littler things,” she promises, pleading with herself to make it so. “I’ll love some littler things.”
Someday, she intimates, we might find something beautiful in the cracks we accumulate from living. There might be miles of fields and rivers to traverse, countless unscorched hills waiting to be summited. But until then, life itself will have to do.
“A Burning Hill” is in no way a complete surrender. Mitski suggests that there will always be something small and hopeful beyond all our uncertainties, that we are made for more than regret and malaise and desperation, that we will always be capable of starting over.
That tomorrow will be better, if we let it.
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cover © Ebru Yildiz