The last time I saw Mitski was in a tiny, dirty punk club in Jacksonville, Florida. There must have been no more than 50 people in the room, but even then, when the singer-songwriter took the stage the crowd acted as though she were a pop idol, screaming and smiling. In a way, she is something of an idol, albeit a very shy one – at one point that evening she made it clear, in a low, “I’m just doing my job” monotone, that there would be no encore – whose music moves us through emotions other than the uninhibited joy of the Top 40. Hers are songs of isolation, rejection, faded romance, and the tender-hearted resolution to persevere through it all. They are the cries for help of a generation who knows it won’t get any.
Since then, those cries have only gotten louder. As Jayson Greene pointed out in a recent story for Pitchfork, the general mood in contemporary music has gotten much more morose. This is mostly thanks to hip-hop artists like Travis Scott, Juice WRLD, and Lil Peep, but Mitski has certainly benefited from this shift. Last year, she was an opener on Lorde’s arena tour. This year, following the release of her new album, Be the Cowboy, she sold out every venue on tour, including Crescent Ballroom, where she played Thursday night, November 8.
This leads to an odd arrangement. When you go to a Mitski show in 2018, you can easily find yourself in a large room full of cheering, outwardly happy people dancing along to tracks like “Nobody,” an upbeat, poppy song that starts with the lyric “My God, I’m so lonely.”
Mitski’s evolution as a performer is something to behold. In Jacksonville, she seemed exhausted by the rigors of touring, almost hiding behind her guitar. Here, she was confident and bold. She stood statuesque in the middle of the stage, letting the expressive lighting dance around her and cast dramatic film noir shadows. A vertical screen projected images of city lights, desert landscapes, rose petals, and ocean waves, among other visuals.
Mitski's music can basically be described as indie rock, with some influence from punk and classic American pop. The singer rarely picked up an instrument, letting the band – formerly just a single guitarist and drummer, now up to at least four other members – do the work, refining her raw early songs with more robust instrumentals and translating Be the Cowboy's complex production to a live setting.
She supplemented her vocals with what I can only describe as elaborate miming. She would make strange gesticulations that were not always clear in meaning, but were intense and purposeful nonetheless. Sometimes, she would get the point across easily: during “Francis Forever,” she would quickly pace back and forth across the stage as the song crescendoed, her lovestruck character’s anxiety perfectly telegraphed. Other times, though, it looked as though she was doing the Robot.
Of course, what surprised me the most about the evening was when Mitski spoke to the crowd. She began with a warning – “I’m not very good at banter” – before giving an explanation. She’d read complaints from reviewers about her stage presence – not a lot of talking or smiling – but that she wants her crowds to “feel an intimacy that’s different from banter.”
I have to agree. Mitski’s attracts sellout crowds because she gives people a space where they can admit their failures, their romantic misfortunes, their isolation. You could’ve fallen into the old trap of feeling utterly alone in a crowd of people that night, but then you’d look up at the woman on stage, asking for “one good, honest kiss,” and know that you’re at least alone, together.
In “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski sings “I’m not a star, I’m not even the moon.” As evidenced by her show, she seems to be proving herself wrong.
The Show: Mitski's Be The Cowboy Tour at Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix.
The Crowd: Mostly people in their 20s, mostly white. More women than men. Well-dressed, but not very flashy.
Overheard: Mitski: "I'm not very good at banter." Woman in crowd: "Yes, you are!" Crowd cheers. Mitski: "I'm just gonna let y'all talk."
Random Notebook Dump: A scary moment early in the evening happened when a woman fainted, interrupting the opening set from Overcoats. Don't worry, she received medical attention from first-responders outside the venue.