“This is so much bigger than all the houses I’ve played,” Mitski mutters into her mic, gazing up to the roof of London’s 2,000-capacity O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s a surprise to hear this, but it is easy to forget how rapidly her profile has grown in just a few short years. She’s still some way off the A-list – not that she would want to be there – but the rapturous response to her fourth studio album, ‘Be the Cowboy’, which dropped in August of this year, suggests she may need to get used to venues of this size.
Fans of 2013’s debut LP ‘Retired from Sad, New Career in Business’ and 2014’s follow-up ‘Bury Me At Makeout Creek’ may feel a little short-changed tonight, with only two offerings from the former and five from the latter. But hearing her back catalogue out of chronology highlights the exponential growth in her songwriting that followed on 2016’s ‘Puberty 2’, and then ‘Be The Cowboy’. She has moved on leaps and bounds in the space of five years, and the rave reviews and increased attention gained on the last two records feel entirely justified from tonight’s showing.
Mitski blasts through 25 songs in less than 75 minutes – taking the brief pause before the encore into account, that’s an average of less than three minutes per song. Regular listeners will know that this is sort of Mistki’s Thing on the record, but there are no reworks, reimaginings or extensions to any songs tonight. A few wouldn’t go amiss.
This business-like approach to the set list means that the real flair in the performances comes from her movement. Early on, she’s pacing up and down across the stage. Later, she’s turning around at right angles, sharply bending at the waist on each turn. Towards the end, her non-mic-holding arm is bent every which way above her head. It’s hard to imagine a move she doesn’t pull over the course of the night. She manages to make these movements feel essential to the performances rather than extraneous, maybe even as essential as the songs themselves. The kneepads that poke out the bottom of her long black skirt are a nice touch – P!nk on a trapeze she is not, but Mitski will do what she can to give a performance that is as demanding of her physicality as it is of her emotions.
The times when those emotions are joyous ones are the stand-outs. At the end of perhaps her best-known track, ‘Your Best American Girl’, a thoughtful acceptance – and, ultimately, embracing – of her upbringing, she beams out at the audience in response to the word-perfect singalong they had just performed for her. At the close of another ‘Puberty 2’ cut, ‘Happy’, she jumps around wildly, a far cry from the violent music video that accompanied the song’s release.
Despite the increased commercial success that has allowed the upgrade to a venue of this size (“You made it happen,” she tells us), it’s the anti-capitalist cry of “I’m starting to learn I may never be free / But though I may never be free / Fuck you and your money,” on ‘Drunk Walk Home’, that elicits one of the loudest responses from the audience. But they’re just as enraptured by ‘Two Slow Dancers’, the mournful closing track on ‘Be The Cowboy’. You can practically hear the goosebumps forming as she sings, “And the ground has been slowly pulling us back down / You see it on both our skin / We get a few years and then it wants us back.”
As an artist, Mitski uses the juxtaposition of loud and quiet like no one else, a skill which is most evident when she’s commanding the attention and noise capabilities of a couple thousand people. Just minutes before the encore of ‘Two Slow Dancers’, she had been wildly strumming her guitar, screaming “I work better under a deadline!” on ‘My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars’, and now you could hear a pin drop. It speaks to her command of a crowd, whatever the size, that her audience are willing to follow this tonal and stylistic flip-flopping. Because that’s what you get from Mitski: no song outstays its welcome, and nor does any one mood. When she decides to change, we go with her. The rewards for doing so are always plentiful, and tonight is no exception.
Remember My Name
I Don't Smoke
Washing Machine Heart
First Love / Last Spring
Me and My Husband
Dan the Dancer
Once More to See You
I Bet On Losing Dogs
Your Best American Girl
I Want You
Come into the Water
Why Didn't You Stop Me?
Drunk Walk Home
My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars
A Burning Hill
Two Slow Dancers
Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart
Mitski is set to play Laneway Festival 2019 in New Zealand this January - click here for more info.