Watching a video of indie singer-songwriter Mitski performing, I came across a YouTube comment that summed up my journey through her music: “At first, I hated this, but then I listened again. And again. And a few more times. This is brilliant.” A tough pill to swallow at first, Mitski’s music gets better the harder you listen and the more willing you are to embrace her unrelenting sadness and anger.
The twenty-six-year-old New Yorker joins a growing group of young indie artists like Frankie Cosmos and Diet Cig whose lyrics read like personal diaries: casually honest and battling distinctly millennial forms of insecurity and depression on the themes of love and growing up. Mitski distinguishes herself from her contemporaries by bringing out the beauty and depth of these concepts in a more adult way. Her lyrics are as thoughtful and serious as they are honest.
“Raw” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the indie rock scene, but Mitski embodies it. In her records she supplements her clear voice with heartfelt and authentic trembles and wails. Her live shows are usually minimalist but compelling, with Mitski standing still, electric guitar in hand. The focus is always her unfiltered emotion. In an NPR Tiny Desk concert, she holds up her guitar to her face and yell-sings at its pickups from an inch away, re-creating a lovers’ quarrel: terrifying and somehow relatable.
Her current most popular song, “Your Best American Girl,” is more melodic and formulaic than the rest of her 2016 album, Puberty 2, but no less clever and passionate. The lyrics are poetry designed around reconciling herself with her half-Japanese, half-American upbringing and acknowledging the reality that she can’t ignore the cultural differences in a relationship:
Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me
But I do, I think I do
And you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl
The rest of Puberty 2 has a more experimental and interpretive feeling, in line with her previous work. She rarely rhymes her verses; she backs herself up with eerie electronic samples and heavy guitar distortion; and she maintains a casual disregard for pitch and pacing that has often earned her the descriptor of “punk” in front of whatever genre she’s going by that night.
Since 2014, the feedback for Mitski’s music has been steadily positive. In 2016 a character on the popular children’s cartoon Adventure Time covered one of her songs, and in the year since its release, Puberty 2 has earned critical acclaim.
Mitski ends her Puberty 2 tour on October 6 with a sold-out show at the Blind Pig (see Nightspots).