Mitski at Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA, October 19, 2018 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Mitski at Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA, October 19, 2018,

Nov 02, 2018 Mitski
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Earlier this year, Iggy Pop said that Mitski Miyawaki, known more commonly by just her first name, is “probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know.” Most people would take such a comment as hyperbole, even if the artist in question is someone that they like. Not Mitski’s fans. Any live show that Mitski puts on acts as a reminder that arguably no other artist outside the mainstream right now has a fanbase as reverent, devout, and ardent as she does.

Mitski’s audience at storied Philadelphia venue Union Transferthe first stop on her ongoing, entirely sold-out, 24-date North American toursang along to almost every song she played from her three most recent albums: 2014’s Bury Me At Make Out Creek, 2016’s Puberty 2, and this past August’s Be the Cowboy. If the crowd’s reception this night was any indication, the Mitski Hive (as Vinyl Me, Please described her fanbase in an article related to VMP’s special Essentials release of Be the Cowboy earlier this year) is as rapturous about the grunge-infused, desperate romanticism of Bury Me at Make Out Creek and its slightly refined, even more deeply heartbreaking sister Puberty 2 as it is about the high-stakes, dramatic, pristinely produced pop of Be the Cowboy. Whether new songs such as “Me and My Husband” or longstanding classics such as Bury‘s “I Will,” hundreds of people sang along with Mitski. You would think she was Beyoncé if you knew no better.

And to many people, she’s just as much of a deity. The reason Mitski has such a devout following is that she tends to pack absurd amounts of crafty metaphors and images regarding failed romances, unreasonable societal standards, and love so desperate it takes such forms as pinky-promise kisses and jumping off roofs (recurring narrative devices across Bury and Puberty 2) into two-to-three minute songs with melodies so strong they’re impossible to not to sing along to. No matter the shape her songs take, Mitski has an unparalleled ability to use precisely the words and sounds needed to make her listeners experience the same turmoil, nostalgia, reflection, and (occasionally) contentedness she recounts in her art. And with song lengths as short as hers, she never overstays her welcome.

With short songs come short albums. A 90-minute Union Transfer set gave Mitski more than enough time to play most of her Bury, Puberty 2, and Be the Cowboy songs (plus a couple of selections from 2012’s self-released, pre-hype Retired from Sad, New Career in Business). “First Love // Late Spring,” a tried and true Bury classic, took a live form that was something like 10 beats per minute faster than its barren, bass-driven, midtempo recording, and Mitski’s band took the liberty of adding a Cure-like set of guitar arpeggios to its mournful, organ-drenched chorus. “Thursday Girl,” a Puberty 2 deep cut, featured a jolting guitar fill not heard in the recorded version, which relegates six-strings to background pitter-patter in the verses and restrained growling in its anguished chorus. Be the Cowboy‘s “Washing Machine Heart” featured extra layers of overdrive and distortion in its outro, whereas the guitar in the recorded version is completely buried under the throbbing bass synth and higher-pitched, eerie digital notes that close out the song.

Mitski’s backing band (one person each for guitar, drums, bass, and keys/synths) enabled her to be hands-free the entire set, minus her unsparing solo performance of crushing Puberty 2 closer “A Burning Hill,” the night’s third-to-last song. This is intentional: Whereas many previous Mitski tours have seen her on stage with as few as zero and as many as three other people, now, with no instrumental obligations, she’s free to move her body, particularly her arms, hands, and head, as she pleases.

Be the Cowboy‘s tour has seen Mitski incorporate slow, steady, robotic gyrations into her stage presence in a way that precisely recalls the movements St. Vincent added into her live persona while touring her 2014 self-titled album. Since Bury arrived that same year and had distorted guitars and deeply personal lyrics about depression and romantic loss, many were quick to label Mitski as a St. Vincent disciple. It’s only now with her new stage antics that this comparison gains much merit. Watching Mitski operate her forearms like pendulums during lurching, deeply distraught Bury highlight “I Don’t Smoke” was enthralling, as was her lifting her pinky up as she sung about pinky-promise kisses during the slowly-gestating chill of woefully overlooked Puberty 2 track “Once More to See You.” She even threw in some bicycles, because no bodily performance art piece is complete without ab exercise.

Of course, this is all in service of the songs. A visual presentation as outré as the one Mitski is presenting on her Be the Cowboy tour might not be received well if it didn’t accompany absolutely fantastic musical performances, which, of course, it does. A major contributor to the inescapable, commanding melodies Mitski comes up with is that she can sing like nobody’s business, both live and on record. Her voice is as welcoming and gentle as it is assertive and overpowering; she both drowns the world in hot flames and beckons with such grace that you can’t help but feel like you’re hearing from an old friend.

At Union Transfer, she missed at most one note, during her penultimate performance of Be the Cowboy closer “Two Slow Dancers,” during which only her keyboardist accompanied her. In interviews preceding Be the Cowboy, Mitski mentioned that there are moments on the album where her voice breaks, such as during her immensely popular disco-style bop “Nobody,” that she didn’t edit out. It’s only natural, and hell, even charming, that her voice broke for a second as she sang “Two Slow Dancers”; Mitski fans know to expect a minimal but gut-punching ballad to end her albums, and “Two Slow Dancers” might just be the most powerful version of the Mitski Closing Song that she’ll ever pen. Of course she might lose her balance a little while singing it to thousands of strangers.

It feels improper to talk about Mitski and her Be the Cowboy tour without discussing two of the album’s songs in particular. “A Pearl” and “Remember My Name,” the album’s fourth and sixth tracks respectively, may well be the two most nauseously impactful songs she’s ever written. The latter song, which, save “Geyser,” is arguably the album’s closest bridge back to Bury and Puberty 2‘s lo-fi-ish, often overdriven riots, opened her set. The bass snarl that starts “Remember My Name” proved brilliant for introducing Mitski’s performative stage persona to the crowd, and the remainder of the track grinds along with tension that burns like marshmallows at the edge of a campfire. A song that employs a double meaning of the word “star” to address what people leave behind after dying and the effects that fame can have on a person, it’s as flooring in its aggressively strummed guitars and fiercely stomped percussion as it is playful in its depiction of its narrator as jaded and exhausted. Naturally, everyone in the crowd sang along even though it was the night’s first song.

“A Pearl,” on the other hand, is as delicate as a song so incisive ever could be. Its opening chord alone foreshadows an ominous oncoming, and only two seconds after it’s strummed, Mitski begins singing about a relationship that, by the chorus, turns out to be deeply toxic, precisely because Mitski’s narrator is having Stockholm syndrome for a previous toxic relationship. Rolling around a pearl in her head to transport herself back to her fights with her former lover (“I fell in love/with a war/and nobody told me it ended/and it left a pearl/in my head/and I roll it around every night”) is very possibly the most hyper-specific, unprecedented metaphor she’s ever used, and for that reason, it just might be her most powerful lyric committed to record. As the song swells from the undistorted and crystalline, but somehow terrifying and unsettling, guitars that outline its verses to its dramatically sung, slightly more distorted chorus and then its dread-inducing, thick synthetic swirl of a midsection that precedes a brief, horn-outlined key change before settling into an even more jolting reprise of the song’s already earthquaking chorus, Mitski makes her war audible. Even though it’s one of her newest songs, the audience sung along to it with perhaps more tenacity than any other song that night. Surely, many people will remember her name.

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