In her 2016 song My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars, Mitski yelled a statement that will be instantly familiar to anyone past the age of 18: ‘I wanna see the whole world! I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent! I wanna see the whole world!’ In 3 sentences, Mitski manages to convey the mixture of thrill and abject terror that comes with being young. It is the soundtrack to that queasy realisation that being in control of your life also means you are the agent of your own misery. How can I be a real adult when I can’t go for a jog without having a breakdown?
The album from which the song was from, Puberty 2, was full of these pithy questions, proposing one’s early twenties as a second adolescence: a never-ending swathe of existential paranoia, toxic relationships and trying to hold onto the connections that will inevitably leave you. In the album, happiness was personified as a fuckboy who comes over, cums first and leaves before you could say goodbye. It kept returning to the same question: what’s worse, being lonely by on your own or with someone else?
The one problem with this is that Mitski is not alone anymore. Owing to the strength of key lead single Your Best American Girl, Mitski is now a star, with thousands of fans and critical acclaim all around the shop. Time called Puberty 2 the 3rd best album of 2016, ahead of Rihanna and Radiohead. Lorde brought her onto her arena tour alongside Run the Jewels. Iggy Pop called her the most advanced American songwriter of her generation. So on her most recent album Be The Cowboy, Mitski doubles down on her newfound stardom, whilst subtly subverting the expectations of that difficult post breakthrough follow-up. It’s there in the cover, an unknown stagehand adjusting her eyelashes, Miyawaki in full diva mode with a floral bonnet and red lipstick. It’s there in the music too: 14 tracks across half an hour that switch from glossy, hands-in-the-air cocaine disco to 60s girl group flirtations to fucked-up funk a la St Vincent. Music that zags when you expect it to zig. And whilst Mitski’s concerns of the heart remain fundamentally the same, on BTC she explores writing from different perspectives, in part due to her frustration that her songs are always assumed to be diaristic (and for that matter, depressing). Don’t call it confessional.
Tonight’s gig at the Bristol Trinity Centre, complete with interpretive dance, should fix any notions of emo navel gazing. With a generous 20 song-plus setlist, Mitski was spirited and forceful even if the crowd didn’t quite know how to take it all in. Me and My Husband was an early highlight, like a show tune left to curdle. ‘We’re sticking together’, its protagonist insists before backtracking, ‘at least in this lifetime’, the jaunty melody abruptly stopping and starting, which was set against Mitski hypnotizingly reclining in a chair, ready for her closeup. She worked with a movement coach to add muscle to her live performances, and this was especially true for Why Didn’t You Stop Me?, which saw her gyrate and throw her arms around her body like a hieroglyphic. Drunk Walk Home had her walk around the stage directly staring at the audience as the lead guitar throbbed and swelled with anger.
It wasn’t all so intense: Nobody was Diana Ross gone depressed, a spectacular addition to the tears-on-the-dancefloor genre. First Love/Late Spring became a Smiths-esque paean to a romance so powerful it induces suicidal urges. ‘One word from you and I would jump off of this ledge I’m on’ goes the chorus, and in Mitski’s capable hands, that went from being unbearably dour to weirdly beautiful. She finished with Two Slow Dancers, striking in its tenderness, a delicate ballad set against mellow synths, not far off a Julee Cruise song. With a polite bow, she left the stage to thunderous applause.
Mitski is a contradictory figure and tonight reflected that. She makes what could be considered indie rock, yet the show was more like a burlesque performance. Her songwriting is vividly personal yet weirdly hard to grasp, and in the same way, her stage banter was polite but gave nothing away. Her music is by no means difficult to listen to, yet it often taps into insecurities the average person may not want to project onto hundreds of strangers. Yet in this bloodletting, there is catharsis. ‘Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me’ went the huge chorus of Your Best American Girl, ‘but I do, I finally do’. I left exhausted but weirdly relieved, as if a weight had been lifted.
There is a tendency for critics (especially male critics) to assume that female songwriters are always writing from a first person perspective. This can be reductive, denying the complexity of their narratives and boiling down expressions of emotion to mere histrionics. Don’t mistake Mitski’s strength of feeling for hysteria. As she stared at me from the stage, microphone in hand, 5 piece band behind her, it was clear who is in control.