Mitski’s songs of fossilised happiness and turbulent adulthood are crushingly personal in their scope. Her bare compositions soak up all of the tension bubbling within the lyrics, each cut becoming painful in its intimacy. Even at their most private, her nuance as a writer makes it feel as if these experiences have happened to you in some capacity. It’s the type of music hard to imagine existing anywhere outside of your own personal listening.
Stereo’s packed basement bar tells otherwise. Really, it should be no surprise just how resonant these songs of fleeting adolescence and identity are – the transition into proper adulthood is captured so elegantly that even the brightest social butterfly could relate. But that doesn’t make holding back the tears any easier. With little more than a brittle bass guitar and that vocal, Mitski Miyawaki has the power to leave you blubbering in a crowd. (And yes when I say ‘you’, I mean ‘me’, because I was a MESS as this gig.)
Despite the relatability, these songs could not have come from anyone other than Mitski. Fractured identity and self-reliance have become her bread and butter, something that’s reflected in her fanbase. The writing surrounding her work thus far makes clear that this music holds a special resonance with LGBT+ and other minority communities where individuals are excluded and alienated in some capacity – as well as a number of white boys like myself who just aren’t ready to grow up yet. Her voice has grown more distinct with her recent output, and the set tonight conveys this well.
The focus is squarely on her commanding presence. Some reviewers have complained of restraint from the artist in the live capacity, but that viewpoint doesn’t hold up tonight. Every sharp glance towards the audience holds as much power as a wild guitar freakout would. The lyricism and musicianship on show have enough presence to fill a stage on their own .
The set kicks off with the crumbling garage rock of ‘Townie’, where her deadpan delivery clashes brilliantly with shrill guitar noise as her melody climbs upwards, as if desperately searching for a happy chorus that will never come. “I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be/I wanna be what my body wants me to be” she snarls at the track’s end; these are songs that mix bravery with vulnerability with thrilling force.
Tension is a key asset for Mitski and her band. They often play with the speed and heft of a funeral dirge, giving space to each lyric and each vocal quiver. The result leaves the crowd panting through dry-ice coated lungs on her bold cover of Calvin Harris’s ‘How Deep is Your Love’. This bleaker take transforms an emotionally vacant song into a beast of all of its own, sparse drum pads giving way to swelling guitars and gasping vocals.
The slight sway of ‘Thursday Girl’ is made just as tense by the constantly beckoning refrain that floats dangerously around stiff percussion before eventually erupting into a harsh scream. Each visceral moment is bookended by a downright gorgeous one. The two sides of her songwriting compliment each other for much of the set.
Occasionally, the band’s energy obscures the vivid shades of light and dark in these songs, such as on ‘Your Best American Girl’, where the full weight of the chorus feels dampened by a rushed delivery. This is only a very slight complaint, and is more of a testament to how flawless the song is on record; elsewhere, the set matches this high bar.
Before playing ‘I Will’, Mitski confesses to not actually having a ‘you’ to address when writing such a yearning song. Tonight, she dedicates it to the audience members in the same position, in the hope it gives them what they need. Her final chant of ‘I’ll be brave’ is as essential and nourishing as anything else she’s written thus far.
The final few cuts she plays alone on her guitar, scoffing at the need for an encore, and instead playing through the space where an obligatory applause would go. “It’s impossible to go over there and come back so we’ll just pretend…” she says with a nod. A set this intimate has no need for formalities.
She begins with ‘A Burning Hill’, an aching surrender to the banality of adulthood. It holds a dark humour in its nihilistic approach to self-acceptance, when the need to be seen as clean clashes with her chaotic mental state. “I have been a forest fire. / I am a forest fire. / and I am the fire, and I am the forest, and I am a witness watching it. / I stand in a valley watching it / and you’re not there at all” she sings, capturing the weight of depression and isolation with a distant coo. (Yes, I was crying.)
She finishes with ‘My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars’, her most anxious offering, that throws all of her themes into a vicious dogpile of self-hatred, narcissism, hope and hopelessness. Many would undoubtedly hope she’d return with ‘Crack Baby’, ‘Firework’ or ‘Happy’ up her sleeve as the real encore but no such luck. This wish speaks more to the brilliance of Mitski’s back catalogue than it does her setlist choice. As she bobs out of view, we leave Stereo at emotional wrecks, reenergized in the process.