Mitski at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 26/09/18
Mitski’s songs are short, intense bursts of emotion that rip through years of social and romantic anxiety like wildfire, with a sound that sits somewhere between Pixies and Gershwin. A misfit, ‘mixed-race’ teenager in high-school, the title of her formidable fourth album – Puberty 2 – parodies her tendency to relive that awkward period of overbearing emotions through her music, where every vicissitude feels like the end of the world, and the desire to fit in bullies all others. Her facebook page’s bio is “Music for people who weren’t invited to the party”.
Her experiences are relatable for a lot of people: sad, vicious, often darkly funny – but tonight Mitski makes it clear from the beginning that she is there to perform, not be vicarious of her audience’s suffering to the detriment of her own mental health. She sings opener ‘Remember My Name’ standing stock-still, hands behind her back, literally unmoved by its bristling anger. Its first line could hardly be more portentous – “I gave too much of my heart tonight, could you come to where I’m staying and make some extra love I can save ‘til tomorrow’s show?”.
In fact, the way Mitski uses her body tonight is utterly absorbing. At times, she remains completely at odds with the prevailing musical sentiments, as a demonstration of her control over proceedings. At others, she relents and goes with the grain – it’s particularly satisfying when during ‘Happy’, she throws her water bottle across the stage with the kind of spirited nonchalance that Tommy Wiseau can only dream of and proceeds to jump up and down with abandon, alone on the darkened stage.
Throughout the night, her carefully-controlled body movements add a compelling layer of extra meaning to her performance that leaves you scrabbling to decode the significance of every wrist flicked or limb held still. In fact, this extra dimension virtually compensates for the fact that Mitski is without an orchestral accompaniment tonight, with her expansive arrangements rearranged for a simple quintet of drums, guitar, bass, keys, and her lone voice. On guitar is Patrick Hyland, her recurrent producer and college friend – every moment of exposed guitar work is cheered delightedly by the audience as if he were their friend too.
She begins ‘First Love/Last Spring’ with her hands over her eyes. “Wild women don’t get the blues, but lately I’ve been crying like a tall child” she sings, knowing that really there’s no contradiction in being wild and confident on one song, vulnerable and scared on the next – Mitski is an adult woman in her full infinite complexity, fearlessly. Love and life are complex, and great music captures them that way. They are fragile too, and the thin line between heaven-on-earth and a life-not-worth living is one Mitski is intimate with. “One word from you and I would jump off of this ledge I’m on, baby” she confesses in her chorus.
‘Me and My Husband’ has a misleadingly jaunty lilt, and tries to reckon whether true love compensates for the futility of life – “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute, and then I’ll be nothing forever” she sings from the back of the stage, avoiding the lights. But the fact that her husband makes life worth living is, it turns out, one big tragic joke, because Mitski is alone – her elegant alt-disco cut ‘Nobody’ makes that much clear. That song, a recent single, is so adored that its solo hi-hat intro alone draws huge cheers.
But between these tracks, plenty more unfolds: Mitski drags a fold-out chair onstage and opens it with a single kick; sits on it to sing ‘Dan The Dancer’ with her legs spread wide; falls to her knees (which are protected by kneepads) during ‘Thursday Girl’; crawls across the stage during ‘I Will’; and elicits even huger cheers with ‘Townie’. “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony” she sings, the lone soul in pursuit of something sincere in the middle of a high school party.
She begins her greatest song – ‘Your Best American Girl’ – from the floor. The song confronts her doomed longing for an All-American boy, why he is so unobtainable, but how she can’t stop herself. The delicious irony is that it sounds like a typical prom slow-dance, only for that illusion to be destroyed halfway through by tempestuous guitars. “You’re all I ever wanted, I think I’ll regret this” she sings before plunging into a chasm of squalling feedback. There are few songs that can match its intensity, and even from my position right at the back, I can see Mitski beaming in raucous applause.
She follows it with ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’, another track that saddles the giddy highs of disco with the weight of loneliness. Mitski exercises her right to be irrational: “I know that I ended it, but why won’t you chase after me?”. She dances bizarrely throughout, sometimes like a sentient forklift, sometimes like her hands are birds’ beaks, sometimes like she’s running an aerobics class. There must be some deeper meaning you think, though what it is escapes me – then again, that might be the point itself, just another example of Mitski’s power to do whatever she wants onstage.
Her endplay is neatly choreographed. After a raucous ‘Drunk Walk Home’ (“Fuck you and your money!” she calmly intones) her band play an instrumental as she walks off to grab an acoustic guitar. She returns, they leave, and she launches into ‘My Body Is Made of Crushed Little Stars’, the overdrive reaching levels that would make even Neutral Milk Hotel wince. The short but beautiful ‘A Burning Hill’ brings things to a nominal close. It speaks well of what has unfolded before us: “I’ve been a forest fire, and I am the fire, and I am the forest, and I am the witness watching it”. To pretend to others she’s holding it together as the flames surround her, she sings of wearing a white button-down shirt – precisely what she wears on stage tonight.
But it’s too sad a note to close on, and so after a few minutes of applause, Mitski and her synth player emerge for ‘Two Slow Dancers’, the devastating closer to her excellent 2018 album Be The Cowboy. It has a Blonde-style minimalism, an air of regretful acceptance. “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here?” she begins, viscerally taking us back to an environment that is so bitterly familiar to her songs. But the topic is different – a failed adult relationship. It’s a sombre message that adulthood can be as shitty as your outcast teenage years – “We get a few years and then it wants us back”.
But Mitski is, as she tells us, determined to end on a happy note, and so the whole band return to play ‘Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart’, from 2013’s Retired from Sad, New Career In Business, when she was still recording albums with her college orchestra. It’s a song that showcases Mitski’s raw potential at that time rather than her gifts now, with melodies that stick out and clash in ways that are interesting – the kind of thing a musician writes before they’ve fully mastered their talents. It is, like the whole show, a great but counter-intuitive finale. To end on it is to smile warmly on the old Mitski who didn’t know it was all going to work out, but tried anyway, to look back (almost) to the youth that she has so excoriated here tonight, and to celebrate the girl who got through it.