By Ethan Lam
The excitement in the House of Blues is palpable. After an excellent opening set by Overcoats (you can read a review of their performance over here), the crowd is anxious, waiting eagerly for Mitski to take the stage. “Era Vivere”, an Italian pop ballad from 1965, plays softly in the background, blanketing the audience in a thick air of mystique and drama.
It’s only been 4 years since Mitski’s breakout record Bury Me At Makeout Creek. Since then she’s put out follow-up record Puberty 2, and most recently Be The Cowboy, quietly becoming an indie rock icon in the process. Throughout all of her releases Mitski has always had the ability to examine her own anxieties & insecurities and work them into pieces of art, translating sentiments and emotions you felt but didn’t quite understand into crystal clear, revealing, and poignant lyrics through her polished songwriting skills and wry cynicism. I myself can’t count the number of times I’ve had an emotional revelation while listening to one of her songs.
On Be the Cowboy, Mitski focused on the use of characters & narrative, and more embellished, glitzy, and dramatic sounds to express herself, distancing herself from the image of the hyperpersonal, “raw”, straight-from-the-heart, emotional female singer-songwriter that has steadily built up around her since Bury Me At Makeout Creek. As such, I came into the show expecting not just music, but a performance. And when Mitski and her band walk on stage and launch into opener “Remember My Name”, that expectation is immediately met: she stares ahead steely-eyed, hands crossed behind her back, yellow light illuminating only one half of her body. At one point she slowly brings her hand forward and examines it before returning to her original pose. This dramaticism persists throughout the night: she moves her arms about as if carrying a large box on “Tuesday Girl”, gracefully slides onto the floor and bicycle kicks the air during the opening to “I Will”, and frantically looks around in all directions during “Townie”.
Mitski and her band ready themselves before starting “I Don’t Smoke”. Throughout, her voice shifts from delicate yet deliberate— “If you need to be mean, be mean to me” — to an explosive swell— “I am stronger than you give me credit for”— and back again, over the distorted electric guitar that marked Bury Me At Makeout Creek. “Washing Machine Heart” follows, an upbeat song about the gradual unravelling of a control freak compensating for their feelings of powerlessness, the bouncy electronic beat contrasting the intensely melancholic lyrics. The next few strums of bass are instantly recognizable, and truly send the crowd into overdrive— it’s “First Love / Late Spring”, and Mitski sways from side to side as she softly croons, the audience returning her lyrics word for word. She then continually paces from one end of the stage to the other during “Francis Forever”, another song from Bury Me At Makeout Creek.
“Me and My Husband”, the next song on her set, is a perfect example of Mitski’s exploration of characters on Be the Cowboy. Over an uptempo piano, steady drum beat, and the occasional flourish of the keyboard, Mitski’s character details her romantic resignation and how she’s settled for a husband who she knows she might not love anymore. On “Dan the Dancer” she slowly approaches a triumphant shout, before mellowing things out for “Once More to See You”, a slow dance song to end all slow dance songs.
Mitski steadily works her way through the rest of her set, a well-balanced mix of songs from her last three albums. On “I Will”, her voice turns from a quavering and fragile whisper into an urgent yell— “All I ever wanted / all I want is always you”— radiates an effortless cool over the frenzied mania of “Townie”— “I’m holding my breath with a baseball bat though I don’t know what I’m waiting for”— and sounds as honey-smooth as ever over the deceptively cheerful, disco-inspired “Nobody”— “And I don’t want your pity, I just want somebody near me”. Who else but Mitski could compel an entire audience to dance their loneliness away by repeating the word nobody exactly 28 times in a row?
In a particularly intimate and heartfelt moment, Mitski confides to the crowd that she is “deathly afraid of people, all humans… because I know what humans are capable of”. She follows by saying “but, when I do shows like this and you show up, I am reminded of what people are capable of but in the positive way as well… I cannot thank you enough… for keeping me, y’know, taking a chance on people and reminding me that there are really nice, empathetic, supportive, kind people in the world”. It’s a genuine moment of connection, a reminder of the good that exists in the world, and the crowd responds with yells of appreciation and adoration.
“Your Best American Girl” follows, with Mitski alternating between moments of quiet and vulnerable yearning, introspective contemplating, and yells of determination. Be the Cowboy opener “Geyser” is the most dramatic song of the night, her powerful and intense vocals taking the track from a thick and dense fog to an explosive, world-ending eruption. “Drunk Walk Home” is fiery and charged, a thumping drum and a violent urgency in her voice— “Fuck you and your money!” she cries— culminating in a fierce drop that sends the crowd into a frenzy.
Mitski retrieves an acoustic guitar to play “A Burning Hill”, a quiet song that could not be any more different than “Drunk Walk Home”. Her voice is solemn, tired, aching as she sings of resigning to a quiet life. I’ve been able to blink away the tears that have been welling up in my eyes throughout her set, but “A Burning Hill” finally opens the floodgates and leaves me sitting on the ground silently weeping my eyes out, a small moment of intense catharsis. Mitski begins to bring the show to a close with the beautiful “Two Slow Dancers”, her voice tender, purposeful, and haunting atop a gently pulsating synth. With a fluttery electric guitar and keyboard backing her, she launches into the final song of the night, “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart”, an unexpected pick from sophomore album Retired From Sad, New Career In Business.
She leaves the crowd with a simple, yet deeply sincere remark: “Thank you for saving my life”. For Mitski, who constantly moved around the world as a child, music has been the singular constant in a life that never stood still for a moment. Music was the only thing worth pursuing and she committed herself fully to it, even if sometimes it felt like it wasn’t loving her back. There’s nothing else she’d rather be doing, nowhere else she’d rather be tonight than playing to this fully packed house. To her, this is happiness.