Mitski and Lucy Dacus at Central Park SummerStage, New York | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Mitski and Lucy Dacus at Central Park SummerStage, New York, September 8th, 2019

Sep 17, 2019 Mitski
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Some shows revel in primeval noise-ridden catharsis. Then you have those big, blustering pop performances where everything’s choreographed to the minutiae. In her incisive creative path across five albums, Mitski Miyawaki has held a definitive alliance with, well, neither.

And given her background, this makes perfect sense: she has lived a nomadic life in 13 different countries. Developing substantial relationships with people became a challenging, emotionally exhausting plight, not to mention the constant learning curve with new languages and customs.

So outwardly, Mitski naturally maintained a stoic equilibrium. Inwardly though, her safety valve manifested in music and song in countless nondescript spaces, rooms, and retreats. Tonight’s setting isn’t nondescript, but a prominent place of gathering. Mitski bookends the final touring run for her critically-lauded fifth album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, with the second of two nights at Central Park SummerStage.

Opening up for her is Lucy Dacus, whose songs not only resonate on a similarly cathartic level but also provide a welcoming contrast. Mitski revels in transcendence as her songs serve as a prism for myriad impressions and feelings. Witnessing Dacus perform, on the other hand, feels as if you’re handed a vivid roadmap of her life, possessing a lyrical prowess that’s very novelistic in character and makeup. Even at her most piercing and acidic, like on the penultimate unreleased track she played, there’s always palpable warmth and weight to her music.

The last time I watched Mitski perform, it was at Dutch festival Best Kept Secret back in 2017. At the time, she was still tethered to playing the bass guitar. Though her show was highly moving, you could sense she was somewhat uncomfortable in the skin of the conventional “frontwoman of the band.” In another earlier encounter in Amsterdam during a press assembly—the day after Prince died—she lamented the delicate balance between iconography and relatability in an interview. How much do you show and how much do you tell? For one, Mitski felt ambivalent about becoming a symbol of popular culture like Prince. Devolving everything to its fundaments with austere punk rock theatrics, something Savages have done so convincingly this decade, also wasn’t her forte. And lastly, the act of singing songs with a (bass) guitar didn’t exactly debunk the sadcore-confessionalism she is perpetually pegged into.

Still living out of a suitcase at the time, Mitski imagined a destination that day, “an escapist fantasy” of the kind of house or furniture she would have if she finally had a place to live (which she now reportedly has). As her cult following skyrocketed following high profile tours with Lorde and the Pixies, she doggedly acquired the means to materialize her personal zone on stage.

And to pontificate: it’s quite something. It’s not quite primal scream, not quite performance art, and not quite ambitious pop hijinks… yet somehow, it’s all those things at the same time. Succinctly put, we are witnessing a thrilling and singular take of what a live show can be. Even with a devoted 5000-capacity crowd singing along nearly every word—sometimes with tearful abandon—Mitski remains elusive through this set, deliberately keeping everyone at arm’s length. On opener “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” she stands rigidly on the left side of the stage, prompting searching eyes.

With an instrument in hand, her movements and impulses were automatically dictated by the cadence of the band. Now unshackled from that toil, Mitski’s subtle pantomime not only focuses the attention squarely on her, it automatically makes her band a separate entity that rises above the sum of parts. This is most evident during one of the set’s most raging moments, a torrential and militant rendition of “Drunk Walk Home.” In the past, Mitski had to evoke the blazing fury of the song’s climax by herself. But here, the band actually takes the brunt of that responsibility, allowing Mitski to funnel her anguish with grace and purpose.

Everything about this show feels deliberately executed. Mitski makes the nondescript table and chair part of our reality as much as hers, shrewdly addressing that relatability/iconography conundrum, essentially killing two birds with a single stone. The chair and table are commonplace objects pivoting her sensuality, her happiness, her rage, her dreams, her sadness; it’s intrusive without inviting voyeurism, stylish though not sumptuous.

Above all, Mitski is showing us, and doing so without explicitly spilling her guts all over the pavement. During the corrosive “Happy” she spins around jubilantly, only to harshly desist. The void between the dexterous metallic trap-inspired rhythm of “Thursday Girl” and her own beckoning vocal delivery already established the song’s sharp disconnect, but on stage, it’s given further exploration with her kneeling for a prolonged amount of time. The physicality of the performance adds a fresh new layer to the narrative.

Within the most economical of means, Mitski invites immersion by continuously messing with the familiar beats of a live show. Her words lilt from her lips either slower or faster than on the recordings, habitually just out of sync from the band and the audience. Additionally, the stops between songs seem to linger right before they wear out their welcome, granting Mitski full rein to dictate the pace and tension. It’s an effective ploy to keep the audience alert and present amidst the emotional peaks and valleys.

Under the umbrella of this live performance, the sprawling body of work from Lush (2012) to Be the Cowboy (2018) feels at its most cohesive and elemental. Lovesick rock anthem “Your Best American Girl”, the disco-inflected banger “Nobody”—which Mitski relinquished to the audience for the better part—and the cheeky pop-punk of ‘Townie” somehow achieved new depth and context through their live renditions, which is pretty rare in indie rock land, where tour dementia often elicits half-assed obligatory echoes of something that was once immediate and requisite.

During this final show for the foreseeable future, Mitski can’t always hide the joy of achieving a profound connection with her audience on her own terms, sporadically breaking character with a warm smile.

Sometimes art and reality do dovetail in these special and mysterious ways; just as a plane soars closely over Central Park, Mitski lands without a hitch with an astonishingly moving solo version of “Carry Me Out”: “At night/On the rooftop/I untie my hair/And watch from my plastic chair/As my dark hair unleashes the night.”

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