Penning a Belated Valentine for Mitski
In an ideal world, I write this review on pink Valentines that dispense sprinkles and candy upon opening. The kind with glitter, the herpes of arts and crafts supplies, that sticks to one’s clothes for days. That would be paramount to my childlike, animal love for Mitski’s music, and to the lingering effect of its meaning.
Mitski in concert is a religious experience. This entire review could be just about her stage presence. She stands unassuming and powerful, at once, her gaze sifting through the crowd, in a t-shirt that reads simply: “She Shreds.” – a reference to the femme guitar magazine of the same name.
The Colectivo Backroom makes the show all the more personal, with its excellent sound and smaller space. It’s difficult to avoid the word “intimate” to describe it, a tired adjective for venues like this one, but that’s what it is. Mitski’s music just works here better than it would in The Rave or Turner Hall, even. She wants to keep it eye-level and close.
Half Waif is the perfect dream-pop intro for this show. Their sound recalls a vague nostalgia as the vocals carry and wilt over smoggy instrumentals. The guitar player is having the time of his life, his entire body crumpling in a dance wielding his instrument. The lead expresses a sentiment about home being where the heart is, after being on tour for so long.
The members of Mitski as a band are super understated and under-rated, content in the supporting role. They seem like a nice bunch, and wicked talented, too. There is a theme of humility in all of this. They open with “Francis Forever”, the broken-hearted ballad for an absent lover off “Bury Me at Makeout Creek”. This melts into “I Don’t Smoke” and then “Happy”. This whole time, Mitski asks gently for audio adjustments. “A little more bass, please,” she says, smiling cleverly. So much of Mitski’s work is about insensitive lovers, desperation, emotional labor and self-destruction. Yet it appears to be a reclamation. There is power in this vulnerability and aching. The methodical and frill-less guitar playing punctuates and emphasizes the weight of the lyrics. The music here is an engine for the feeling. It does not distract. Otherwise, a more sophisticated, embellished sound could break under the load it carries.
The next song is “Dan the Dancer”, which centralizes on the metaphor of a cliff-hanging figure. She sings the bop “Townie”, whose lyrics precisely encapsulate the theme of their music: “And I want a love that falls as fast / As a body from the balcony, and / I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” It’s excessive and doomed. After joking about covering a commercial jingle, they launch into the hit, “Your Best American Girl”. The sound erupts. It’s extremely cathartic. They drift into the angelic glory, glory glories of “Thursday Girl” and bald-face, stuttering folk confessions of “I Want You”.
This is such a special show for me specifically. It’s the kind of music that aids in the survival of fruitless Midwestern winters, frustration toward life and loneliness. Mitski takes these unpleasant, dead things and transforms them into strength and beauty. It’s outsider for some in its honesty about hurt, longing and bad decisions. To be with other people and share a love and familiarity for it is intense.
The band then plays “I Bet on Losing Dogs” which is followed by “First Love/ Late Spring”. Mitski gives some preface for the song “I Will”, explaining that it is about things she needed to hear. “I wrote it and pretended someone was saying it to me.” How wonderful it is that writers and artists can dream up magic and reassurance. The rest of the band departs and now it is just Mitski with her guitar, still staring at us solidly, flashing a smirk occasionally. Her identity as an artist melds into the identity of her art, inseparably.
The following songs are pared down and relentless: “A Burning Hill”, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”, “Last Words of a Shooting Star” and “Class of 2013”. The lyrics are full of want: “My body’s made of crushed little stars / And I’m not doing anything / I wanna see the whole word.” They are full of harsh realities, reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s Parting Gift: “You learned from movies how love ought to be/ And you’d say you love me and look in my eyes / But I know through mine you were / Looking at yours.” Her words are full of an awareness for life’s brevity: “Mom, am I still young? / Can I dream for a few months more?” We are reminded of our place in the universe as re-configured star dust particles, of the love we invent, of the fleeting nature of youth, and how it can all be a painful waste.
She’s ferocious as she teeters on the edge. In its starkness, her voice is pure and beautiful. Mitski lifts the guitar and screams for help into the pickup.
Mitski says, “I was one of those girls people called intense.”
For the encore, someone asks for “Fireworks” (“And when I find that a knife’s sticking out of my side / I’ll pull it out without questioning why”). Mitski just laughs and replies, “Oh, I’m not going to do that,” but is glad that the requester knows of the song. This is entirely her show. How are you going to tell Mitski what to do?
The final song is “Drunk Walk Home”, which perhaps describes this Wednesday night’s end for some of the crowd. I am left with three back-and-forth final thoughts:
- I want to admiringly staple paper hearts to her touring van door.
- Valentines may be too innocent for this young woman, who writes so vengefully of love.
- Mitski is deserving of a sincere love letter. But it would have to be delayed to March, of course, as if from one of the unconscious lovers she sings about.