Stony-faced US singer-songwriter Mitski fixes a reverent, sold out crowd with a stare. One of the most significant new talents to come out of what you might loosely call “indie rock” (there are riffing guitars, but that’s not the whole picture) the 28-year-old stands stock-still behind a mic stand.
You notice with delight she is wearing a white long-sleeved shirt – Mitski has a moving song, A Burning Hill, in which she wears “a white button-down”, to appear neat and in control as an annihilating inferno is raging in-song. Behind her is arrayed a four-piece band: usually performing from behind a guitar, tonight she’s unencumbered. Then you notice the kneepads.
What follows is an extraordinary performance that often sounds like chunky, buzzy, familiar-enough indie rock; there’s a very good reason the Pixies took Mitski on tour with them in 2017. But it plays out like a piece of conceptual art.
As Mitski sings her often distractingly pretty songs about sex and death and loneliness, she moves first some fingers, then a hand and arm (one song) then another hand and arm (another song). These slow gestures are occasionally defined – she mimes taking a drag on I Don’t Smoke – more often gnomic, until finally, each leg is activated and she begins to move in little stylised sequences. Mitski paces, directs traffic, strikes poses, bows to the four winds, and makes like a malfunctioning doll. She manspreads while sitting on a chair. Eventually, the kneepads come into their own, as she throws herself around and collapses on the floor. This process takes an hour.
It flies by, because accompanying this precise slow tease are three albums of lust and misery, self-abasement and glacial unavailability that match up with the dance of repression and catharsis. NPR, the US public radio channel, called Mitski “the 21st century’s poet laureate of young adulthood” – not for nothing did that other poet laureate of young adulthood, Lorde, take Mitski on tour earlier this year – but really, she is much more than that. Coupling and uncoupling might be a young person’s game; Mitski, though, gazes into the abyss from the point of view of age on a song like Two Slow Dancers. You know you are in the presence of a writer’s writer as Mitski rotates perspective on A Burning Hill: she is the fire, she is the forest, she is looking at the devastation from the valley. But she does a fine line in millennial angst too: My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars is a spasm of punky frustration. She wants to see the world, she has to pay rent.
Everyone here is on board for this emotional Tough Mudder: each song’s opening sequence of notes is greeted with screams. That excitement hits an early peak for First Love/Late Spring, off Mitski’s first guitar-led album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014), in which she pleads with a lover to coax her off a windowsill. “One word from you and I would jump off of this ledge I’m on baby/ Tell me ‘don’t’, so I can crawl back in.”
It’s not the only song tonight on which Mitski demands to be taken in hand – there’s the engrossing Thursday Girl, off her breakthrough album, Puberty 2 (2016), where Mitski’s elegant vocal, redolent of Lana Del Rey, contrasts with the iffy goings-on at a party, at which she arrives “on her knees”. “Tell me no,” she begs. Why Didn’t You Stop Me, asks a new-wave disco number off her latest, more pop-facing album, Be the Cowboy, a pretty radical stylistic departure that seems to sit well with her ultras. Each album has sold more than its predecessor.
In 2018 it is hard to imagine anyone having anything new to say about the business of wanting and not being wanted. But Mitski has skinned that cat afresh. Initially, she appeared to be in the company of a number of grungy guitar acts who were rehashing the 1990s, her barbed prettiness not a million miles away from artists like Waxahatchee. The New Yorker opined that Mitksi was at the forefront of a wave of women who were redefining a genre that was otherwise played out.
In fact, Mitski arrived late to guitars: after a peripatetic childhood racking up international schools as far apart as Turkey and the Democratic Republic of Congo, she studied film, then music, in New York and put out two early albums of fluttery, piano-led chamber pop, made with fellow classical music students including Patrick Hyland, who produced the last three records and plays guitar tonight.
Most good artists are, to an extent, outsiders. But Mitski is especially concerned with the space between herself and others. She has spoken in interviews of having changed countries so often, she struggled to negotiate the ups and downs of relationships in adulthood.
Add to this her part-Japanese upbringing and Mitski’s take on otherness is, at times, acute. The defining song of Puberty 2 – and one of the set’s greatest moments – is Your Best American Girl, in which Mitski dissects how hard she tried to conform to a partner’s cultural expectations, but ultimately conceded defeat. Not only that: Mitski’s use of straight-ahead anthemic indie rock for this exploration of not belonging made it all the more potent, coming from a woman of hyphenated ethnicity (Japanese-American) in a genre historically dominated by white boys.
The title of Be the Cowboy literally exhorts Mitski to swagger more, and she does, lining up with the likes of St Vincent: swapping between guitars and electronic pop, combining a beautiful voice with the ugliest of emotions. Geyser is its crowning sonic moment: all electronic sustain, Mitski’s extraordinary voice carrying on sweetly over the din.
Tonight, Nobody – the most mainstream song on Be the Cowboy – sounds a touch like another 1990s track: Lovefool by the Cardigans. Its opening line, though, is worthy of the Smiths: “My God, I’m so lonely/ So I open the window/ To hear sounds of people…” At one point, her hand touches her own breast: just a swift pat on the underside. A bolt of electricity goes through those that witness it. As the song reaches its ending – “No!” – she slaps the wandering hand down.