Mitski and the Lonely

December 13, 2018

I am standing in some random Henle apartment I’ve never been to before at 11:47 PM on a Saturday. It is cramped and sweaty but covered in attempts to make the place feel like home. A scattering of posters and six-pack remnants and fairy lights blanket the walls, the floor is tacky with dried Natty.  I am doing what I do at all parties: looking for the nearest corner to make my way toward where I might be able to avoid having to talk to people I don’t know. Of course, the only reason I keep going to parties is some feeble attempt at connecting with new people. I think I am mostly just hoping to suddenly become eleven years old again and therefore able to interact with strangers like a normal human being. I have met so many people I want to be friends with this year, and I feel like I just have no idea how to do that anymore. Mitski’s “Nobody” begins to leak from the speaker which sits in the corner I have claimed.

My favorite thing about Mitski is her understanding of drama. There is never a wasted line or word or moment on any of her songs. Everything is pointing towards some bigger, simpler feeling—every song an untangling. This is true from her first album, LUSH, in 2012, but 2018’s Be The Cowboy is perhaps the most cogent, condensed, tour de force exemplification of this facet of Mitski’s immense talent so far. The album is orchestral and never stops interrogating loneliness and whatever that emotion is that stands up to face it: courage or resentment or anger or love. This back and forth, this story of personal conflict with personal loneliness, marks every moment of the album. These stories are all christened with Mitski’s unique ability to run to the edge of melodrama and look over, waving and sending love without ever overstepping into something unreal or unlistenable.

Mitski is playing the 9:30 club and I am in line with Andy an hour before doors, yet we are still snaked all the way around the corner of the block. By the time we get in, the opener, Overcoats, is already almost finished with their set and the room is filled with artificial fog. No one seems fully engaged until Mitski’s band starts tuning instruments. When the lights go out, there is a cheer like at any other concert, but, when Mitski takes the stage, something is special. There is cheering but it is borderline reverent. It’s more than simple excitement: it’s clear and vocal admiration.

And then, she sings. And then, we stand watching. Not a single eye wanders from the stage. Mitski commits to something between vogueing and movement theatre, actions choreographed and performative, hands encapsulating the lion’s share of the dramatic work. It feels like Be The Cowboy incarnate. LED screens illuminate Mitski from behind with images of winding roads and window blinds lit by a single bulb. The lighting is almost entirely from the side and intense, colors either shifting between one another seamlessly or brusquely flipping across the spectrum. Mitski doesn’t miss a note the entire night. It is as if she’s lip-syncing, save for the moments where she intensifies the drama, adding length to pauses between phrases. Short interstitials of personal stories are delivered beneath much more natural light, and mark what feels almost like different acts of the show. Mitski talks about college and loneliness and being thankful. In these vignettes, she is all person, the performativity stripped away only for a moment, before she dives back into the drama she white knuckles so well, never fully disappearing beneath it.

The whole show echoes from the last two songs. Mitski leaves the stage and returns with just an acoustic guitar, playing the last song of Be The Cowboy, “Two Slow Dancers,” alone. It is slow, difficult, and haunting. I cry a little and try to hide it from Andy. The lights change and we are being addressed again: “Some of you may not know this one, but it’s on my Bandcamp if you scroll to the bottom.” And Mitski and her band play “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” a jaunting, dancing, spectacle of a song. They leave, and it is over. No encore required. And I think what I’m trying to say is it takes a very special kind of artist, kind of person, to sell out the 9:30 Club two nights in a row and to end that concert with a new, solo acoustic ballad, plugging a Bandcamp, and a deep cut of a dancing banger, managing to do all of that without ever talking down to or ostracizing new fans. With Mitski, every moment becomes a beckoning, an invitation into a life. The whole show is a reaching hand, asking you to grab on.

It would be easy to think that all of Mitski’s songs are about love, and I suppose they are. What isn’t? I think everything is a love poem when you stare at it for long enough or squint a little. Mitski, for me, puts a microscope up to what it is to be alone, what it is to be a person who is inherently alone, and all the ways we deal with that. I originally felt like all of Be The Cowboy echoes outward from the albums most popular single, “Nobody,” a disco, dance track about shouting your loneliness into the void again and again and again. “Nobody, nobody, nobody.” The song feels like watching your childhood neighbor vogue down a Paris fashion week runway: undoubtedly dramatic and glamorous, but so close to home it could be you or any or all of the people you’ve ever loved. That for me was Be The Cowboy through the first month or so of listens. Now, I think perhaps the culminating track, “Two Slow Dancers,” exemplifies its ethic for me. If Mitski’s former discography was about trying to understand who you are in the context of the people around you, Be The Cowboy is the arrival of that understanding. It rides the line of, “Yes, I am confident in my identity, but that doesn’t mean I never feel alone or complicated.” Our pasts finally in context, our presents just barely less tangled, “As it is / and it is.”

I am standing in some random Henle apartment I’ve never been to before at 11:48 PM on a Saturday, and “Nobody” by Mitski is playing. And I am leaving my corner. And I am singing. And I am dancing, my shoes just barely sticking to the floor. Andy reaches a hand out to me and I grab it. We are singing and dancing together. Then Sam and Chris and Eliza and Claire and people whose names I don’t even know, all yelling, out of tune, together. “Nobody, nobody, nobody.” And yet, here we all are. Reaching together towards something, maybe even each other. “Nobody, nobody, nobody.” And I’m not saying this is proof we’re going to make it out okay, or that this isn’t all some big impossible task, or that I could ever be eleven years old again, but it is enough to bring me to the next Henle apartment on the next cold weekend night. It’s enough to walk me back here again, hoping. “Nobody, nobody, nobody.”

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Mungus Goblungus

This is great, but on the 20th of April this year Sting and Shaggy released 44/876, a collaborative album and utter sonic triumph that completely obviated the need for humanity to ever make art, like Mitski’s, ever again.