Artists by nature are allowed to be chameleons to a certain extent. The album or songs you write as a 20 year old might draw from very different places than it will when you’re gaining in years. It’s all part of the growth and maturity that comes with being a performer and an adult, as a matter of fact. That’s where we find the inspiration for today’s post, about up and coming, potential superstar in the making, Mitski.
Since arriving modestly in 2012 with her album “Lush,” her music has been about personally engaging emotions that overwhelm while also waking you up to how these deterrents can be fought and ultimately conquered. The record, along with her next self released album “Retired from Sad, New Career in Business,” are both engaging and worth a listen. On “Retired,” we get a more orchestral movements along with her silky yet sullen voice whispering from the darkness, trying to lull the listener into a dark, albeit engaging emotional place. One of the best tracks on the album, “Shame” features violin chords that cut deep with tension and a foreboding that is often not heard outside of film scores or during haunting symphonies. It’s an early testament to her pushing herself musically, and even without a huge budget and no name recognition, it stands proudly as an early sign of excellence that portents to what future Mitski works will showcase.
In 2016 though, at the age of 26, right as most adults are still trying to gain traction and make a name for themselves (in whatever field they happen to be in) Mitski took that dive and released a record that was not only hailed by indie music types, but also caused people to take notice to this soft spoken but direct Japanese American songwriter named Mitski Miyawaki. That record, “Puberty 2,” explores the dense and intimidating nature of things like growing up racially obscured in terms of how to balance the concepts of cultures that often wildly misalign in how events are felt, showcased and ultimately handled. Her experience in this is likely normal for others like her who grew up walking the line between having a profound culture from one point of view while still trying to fit in in whatever culture you spent more time. It’s a struggle that bleeds through the whole record, but it doesn’t ever get black and white in terms of what’s right and wrong. I’ve found in dealing with culture clashes there often isn’t a “this is right or this is wrong” standpoint. Certain people just do things differently from how my family might do it, but it’s not wrong or right. It’s just how it is.
Songs like the powerful opener “Happy,” are engaging in their sexuality but also frank about the turbulence of any potential romantic relationship. Her lyrics are dirty in message but they way she manipulates the words ends up being more romantically cathartic than perhaps it’s meant to be. It’s another example of her word play when she talks about “happy came into me,” as she’s describing the bliss of love making with the person of her choosing. Other songs like “Dan the Dancer” brim with immediacy courtesy of the rhythmic guitar sections. It’s moments like this that capture the listener while also making departures that an unknowing fan might not expect. It’s this variance of sound that’s makes difficult to anticipate what might come next. At least it’s exciting thought provoking music though.
One of the best, standout tracks on “Puberty,” “Your Best American Girl” finds its entrance about fifteen minutes in, but it’s musicality, vocals, and lyrical content stand as the best on the record. The trepidation composed throughout the track is palpable and agony driven. At the root of the track is the regret and uncertainty of being in love but of also feeling like the way you were brought up isn’t in line with what others perceive as being the best way. Again this speaks to the culture clash of being a Japanese born American and having to navigate the difficult task of being from two juxtaposing worlds and ways of life. “Puberty 2” ended up getting accolades from various indie music blogs, justifiably so, but Mitski’s next trick would be more eye opening and raw than anything else she has released thus far.
Released last year to widespread acclaim, “Be the Cowboy” has everything her fans have grown to love, but it’s pouring with dark pop tendencies. Take the first track “Geyser,” it’s a blustering harmonization of dinky lit synth, with Mitski’s voice calling from the darkness for us to join her. From there the album delves into what the artist Mitski has described as her “saddest record” to date. And boy let me tell you she wasn’t joking. Over the 38 minute run time, you feel her pain and desperation. Tracks like “Washing Machine Heart” might seem more upbeat than others but the lyrical content still makes you want to weep with her and tell her it will be ok.
Albums like this can be difficult to get through. Mostly what it boils down to for me is how closely do I want to be engaged to these forbidding, often deceptive thoughts. Many of the songs here simply work, like “Remember My Name” with its pure vocals and walloping drum section, it’s vaguely heartbreaking in scope, with the listener hoping for recognition in a world that pretty much lets everyone ignore everyone else at will. It’s small moments and observations like this that gave the album growing room and high praise. It’s also why among many publications and websites this record, this “Be the Cowboy”, came bursting through and landed atop most of the year end albums lists of the year just completed. Hell even this very website named it the top album of 2018.
For some that classification speaks to what was perceived as a lukewarm music year, but to me it means the album was incredible and moving. To get to a point where your album is named “the best” means that you’re taking risks in your creation. That point brings me to the track “Lonesome Love.” It’s a bittersweet piece about attempts to convey your happiness through your outward beauty but then being let down. Included during the vocals is a line regarding how well she can take care of herself sexually. Twenty years ago a female musician likely would’ve been chastised for being “too graphic” or any of the other things bullshit men who don’t want women being too overly sexual to be. The point I’m trying to make is that to stay strong and independent and well, human, we have to be able to convey our feelings and to do so without being frightened of perception. The album is seething with these types of abandoned or pushed aside emotions, but in its final minutes Mitski takes a leap and manages to pull all the other messages during the album into one last, gorgeously layered track.
This track, “Two Slow Dancers,” is the type of song that breaks into your heart, making you remember all the times you were wrong, ill informed, or downright fucked over. I can feel the pain of being part of something that ends tragically or miserably- and in that moment we’re transported to a time where lovers held each other under soft lights. The picture she paints here is regrettable, not because we don’t want to deal with it, but because we all already have, and the weight of the pain in going back is just too much for our souls to handle. When Mitski harmonizes “To think that we could stay the same,” it brings moments fluttering into your subconscious. Moments that you’ll never forget, even if you want to, and also the joys and free wielding nature of being in love during the early highs of our 20’s, without a care into the world. That can’t last of course, and even though we hear the beautiful vocals of Mitski as she exclaims that “we get a few years and then it wants us back,” we know that life is filled not with ultimate second chances, but of regret and sadness. Like I said, the record is incredibly sad and vulnerable, but the best music was never made from a confident, happily reassured place. But rather from a place deep within us as we try to move past our own hang ups and mistakes. Thank you for reading.
Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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