I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment I first heard Mitski’s music, but the first track I ever heard was “Your Best American Girl.” Pretty basic, right? Considering that the song is one of her biggest to date, landing at #16 on NPR’s “200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women” ahead of names like Adele and Beyoncé, it’s not surprising that hearing the song instantly got me hooked.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mitski’s work, she’s quietly been releasing studio albums since 2012, her fifth release came out this year. After self-releasing her first two albums, Lush and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business while studying music at Purchase Collage’s Conservatory of Music, Bury Me At Makeout Creek was released under Double Double Whammy Records, following Puberty in 2016 and Be The Cowboy earlier this year: both on Dead Oceans.
Mitski Miyawaki was born in Japan and moved around quite a lot during her childhood due to her father’s job: living in a total of 13 countries before settling in New York City. Mitski initially planned to study film in college but eventually chose music composition, leading her to release her first two albums during her school years (they were class projects) – which ultimately grabbed the attention of Double Double Whammy Records. Bury Me At Makeout Creek was released on the label in 2014 – garnering positive reviews from major publications and was noted for its radical departure in sound from her first two releases.
After touring with The Pixies and most notably her select tour dates supporting Lorde on her Melodrama World Tour, Mitski’s 5th studio album Be The Cowboy was available for pre-order on May 14, 2018 with no prior announcement to another album release.
After its release, critical success of Be The Cowboy was found everywhere you could look. Rolling Stone praised Mitski’s ability to “address emotional shitstorms in miniaturist detail and at maximalist scale” and praised the songs sounding “smart, wry, powerful and deserving of love.”Consequence of Sound gave the album an A, describing Be The Cowboy as “Addicting: each track is a gem, reflective and complex and yet exactly as simple as it ought to be.”And finally, Pitchfork gave the album an 8.8 rating, naming it as a Best New Album: “Be the Cowboy is a definitive statement on the myth of perfection. She can stretch to the heavens and sink into the ground. She can be everything at once, again and again.”
With so much positive feedback on Be The Cowboy, I knew it would be interesting to see how the tracks could transition into a live show setting without losing their specialness: once an album is released to the world, it’s no longer just the artist’s. This is how I felt about finally hearing these songs live after listening to the album in its entirety nearly once a day since it was released. The experience was no longer just mine, it was everyone’s, everywhere.
The Be The Cowboy fall tour was sold out completely by the time Mitski’s October 25 date in Chicago came around: a fourth show in Brooklyn was added a couple days before (and is now also sold out). The show nearly reached its capacity by 7pm: Mitski wasn’t on until 8:30. With lots of fans around me buzzing excitedly, sharing stories about previous times they had seen Mitski perform, indie-pop duo Overcoats quietly made their arrival onstage at 7:28pm. I’ve seen Overcoats twice prior, so I won’t go into detail for sake of repetitiveness, but they were great as always and we got to hear two new songs from their upcoming album (release date TBA).
Check out photos below:
As 8:30 rolled around, the house lights dimmed as the stage went black. Slowly each member of Mitski’s band appeared as she followed, walking to the microphone to take her place onstage. It was completely silent until the opening guitar riffs of “Remember My Name” solidified the beginning of the show as cheers erupted throughout the venue.
Going into “I Don’t Smoke” from Bury Me At Makeout Creek – Mitski’s performance was methodical, closed off, with a purpose. As she continued further into the set, choreographed dance moves and all, it was as though she was building to something bigger, ready to let go completely, priming herself to be open to vulnerability. Not ready to completely show her cards, her persona kept fans guessing: look away once and you’ll miss something. Take a glance down at a new text message on your phone as the crowd cheers: you look up and the moment has passed.
This is further emphasized through the absence of dialogue between Mitski and the crowd outside of the performances. “I’m not much for banter,” she says at one point: only speaking two more times between songs for the rest of the show. Once to address the satisfaction of feeling like she can relate to people after sharing her music.
“I write all of these songs when I’m alone and I don’t think about strangers understanding them…but being here with you makes me feel less scared of people.”
Not many musicians in 2018 are able to keep up such a trance in a performance as everyone is constantly wanting to capture the moments on their smart phones, posting to Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook live so the memory can live forever. Mitski doesn’t want that. She wants you to pay attention to what she’s doing. Each performance brings something new: as “Francis Forever” continues to pick up speed, Mitski’s pacing from left to right, back and forth across the stage, matching the building tempo, an easy and relatable way to address the anxiety-inducing track.
In “Me and My Husband,” she represents the ideals of a 1950s housewife, making sure to stand tall, prim and proper, showing no signs of revolt. Deciding to suck it up and make it work in an unhappy relationship. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” brings choreographed steps towards the front of the stage and back again: “Do I chase after them? Do I Stay?”
It is not until the exact halfway mark of the set during “Townie” where we see some sort of uncontrolled emotions from Mitski – a “malfunction” in the system is apparent during the guitar solo at the bridge of the song as she boldly throws in a head bop and even a hair flip. This moment of emotional eruption ends just as quickly as it started as she continues the set with “Nobody,” a standout track from Be The Cowboy and the ultimate sad song, dancehall anthem for the ages. A complete 180 from the previous song, she continues to play the role she so often contemplates: “I’ve been big and small and still nobody wants me…I’m just asking for a kiss…give me one good movie kiss and I’ll be alright.”
Perhaps the most vulnerable we see Mitski during the 24-song set is her performance of “Two Slow Dancers,” a song about an old couple swinging along alone in a gymnasium that could be anywhere across the continental United States: an idea so universally understood yet always a tug at the heart-strings. Things always get harder as time goes on: and longing for the past will always be a desire, no matter how much we embed it into our brains that we’ll never get time back.
With just one more song to close out the set, Mitski notes the “throwback” track (“Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,”) as one that she used to perform in college, noting how she could rarely get just one person to attend her show at dive bars in New York City. It’s looking like that those people who never showed up several years ago are likely now kicking themselves in the head.
Mitski’s ability to convey emotion in her music that can live in an era of hashtags (#relatable and #sadgirl) will continue to speak louder than it seems like she’s comfortable emoting. But her fans are patient, as they know that she just needed someone to listen to what she had to say.
All photos by Nic Kosirog-Jones.