Much as it’s reviled by its practitioners, the label of what is or isn’t “emo” has always been more of a, hm, dick move to those outside its designation. It’s the ultimate slap in the face to, say, the riot grrrl movement — for the competing testosterone-driven contingent to draw a line in the sand of what constitutes emotional punk itself. The idea that there was a time when the Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids were considered to be the more emotional alternative to anything — much less a ’90s in which Lilith Fair and Kill Rock Stars alike were merely the most prominent platforms for women to finally sing fearlessly about everyday oppression — never added up.
On the allegedly non-emo side of the punk fence, female artists wrote about abuse and sexual assault. Mia Zapata of the Gits was murdered. Yet “emo” didn’t come to be synonymous with such horrors until reports broke in 2008 that “emos” in Mexico faced violent, homophobic attacks; that is, until a province mostly viewed as white and straight became co-opted by people of color believed to be queer. (For the sake of not erasing him, the Promise Ring’s guitarist Jason Gnewikow was a rare out gay man during emo’s late-‘90s emergence.)
“Emo” was a disliked term well before it almost entirely came to signify hyper-romantic men lamenting their relationship problems in earnest. But through whatever mysterious word-of-mouth that no band would admit to, it came to signify yet another scene of fierce and exclusive male loyalty that had trouble accepting women. How acts as disparate as Rainer Maria, Pretty Girls Make Graves, or Paramore fit into its lineage remains fuzzy to many, just as the Slits, LiLiPUT, and Pylon are sidelined from punk’s Clash/Ramones/Pistols discussions. No s**t: If a woman plays by the rules, someone else changes them. Change them herself and she gets disqualified.
This genre in particular is as messy as its narrators: No one wants to cop to being emo, yet thanks to Into It. Over It., Modern Baseball, and the Hotelier, this year it’s experiencing arguably its lowest amount of derision, well, ever. How 24-year-old Mitski Miyawaki fits into that trajectory is up to the gatekeepers; her excellent fourth album, Puberty 2, has already touched the fractious hearts of many who’ve heard advance streams. But as a landmark of histrionic DIY music, it deserves to be part of something bigger than itself.
That’s not to just razz a Dashboard-worthy title like “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.” Miyawaki sings to “Happy”-ness itself on Puberty 2’s opening track, personifying the feeling as the warmest of guns: one that just came inside her. Throughout the album’s 31 minutes, she serenades unusually chosen metaphors (Big Spoon and Crack Baby are but two characters with songs addressed to them), cries to fireworks like Drake, and casually pulls a knife out of her side during a jog like it was stuck there by Mr. Shankly himself. Even at her lowest decibels, Miyawaki has a way of tightening the string around your guts: “I am a forest fire” is granted one of the album’s softest deliveries.
The two advantages she enjoys over fellow earnest indie-rock contemporaries are her unpredictable arrangements (“Happy” adorns a sputtering drum machine with trumpets like pre-Interscope TV on the Radio) and her sparsely deployed but crucial sense of humor (2014’s breakout Bury Me at Makeout Creek was named for a Simpsons reference). It’s on the Rid of Me-esque, scab-ripping treble of that ridiculous “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” that this dichotomy is laid plainly bare, when Miyawaki alternates the wistful “I want to see the whole world” with the balloon-popping “I don’t know how I’m gonna pay my rent.” The chasm becomes wider when the album’s most melodramatic line, “Would you ki-i-ill me, Je-ru-sa-lem,” is juxtaposed with probably its pithiest: “I work better under a deadline.” The no-fi white noise of her guitar makes no attempt to bridge these competing, fleeting anxieties; at times this record is like staring at your own inflamed appendix in a jar, wondering how your own body could conspire to kill you.
The previous Bury Me at Makeout Creek had plenty of bloodletting, most notably on the discordant “Drunk Walk Home” (“F**k you and your money” said both its lyric and its anti-melody), but only its incredible single “Townie,” (which likened falling in love to a body dropping from a balcony) hinted at the sinuous songwriting leaps of Puberty 2. The harmonies that buttress the climax of “Once More to See You,” the Bossanova-era Pixies thrashing on “Dan the Dancer,” and the ear-tricking snakes comprising the tune of “Happy” have no other precedents in Miyawaki’s quickly grown catalog. It’s an argument against emo’s dynamic-shifting prog tendencies how careful every touch on Puberty 2 sounds. Deliberately cheap-sounding loops vie with arena-sized choruses here, with few attempts at reconciliation. Then again, the jaunty quickie “A Loving Feeling” ties the Hotelier’s “Two Deliverances” for emo’s subtlest employment of country chords, so who knows where this genre is going.
Formerly Mitski’s best song, “Townie” also contained a theme punk knows all too well — “I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be” — but imbued with the heritage and experience of living as a half-Japanese, half-American woman that far fewer punks could claim to understand. The subject returns on Puberty 2’s centerpiece, first single, and raison d’être, “Your Best American Girl,” which is the greatest of several tunes here to convincingly argue that it may be better to have never loved at all when the loss is so gutting.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” she sings over the year’s largest chorus, bolstered by an unforgettably choreographed video in which a crush chooses a fringe-festooned, culturally appropriating white woman over her. (There’s no existing accolade great enough to award Mitski’s lip-bite as she rolls up her sleeve for competitive hand-Frenching.) The battalion of distorted guitars under-girding this motherlode resembles nothing as much as the Weezer of “My Name Is Jonas” or “Only in Dreams,” emo godfathers whose unchecked Asian-fetishizing may finally be avenged here two decades on.
Puberty 2 isn’t shaped like an opus; it’s jagged and slight and the auteur has already expressed second thoughts about the liberties taken with its addiction-themed coda. But it’s a high-watermark of post-irony indie, a cracked safe of perspectives previously unheard in lump-throated punk. It plays like a sketchbook, but you’ll grow to hum every Sharpie stroke. It’s exactly as redolent as you’d expect of someone who names a song “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” It’s not gonna be what your genre wants it to be.