This month, Mitski, the 33 year old singer and songwriter, released her seventh studio album, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” (2023). Met with critical acclaim, the intensity and intimacy of her lyricism reminds us of her incredible artistry, the path she has taken to get here and who we think she is.
Mitski Miyawaki, originally Mitsuki Laycock, was born in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, but moved constantly as a young girl because of her father’s career in the U.S. Department of State, spending parts of her childhood in Turkey, China, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout her peripatetic childhood, it was music that remained a constant presence in her life, and while she initially entered Hunter College to study film, she eventually returned to her first love and transferred to SUNY Purchase to study studio composition and arranging.
Mitski garnered acclaim early on for her profound and sensitive writing, which has touched on feelings of jilted love, rage, isolation, racial identity and longing. “Reach out the car window, trying to hold the wind / You tell me you love her, I give you a grin,” she sings in “Strawberry Blond” from her album “Retired from Sad, New Career in Business” (2013). “Oh, all I ever wanted was a life in your shape / So, I follow the white lines, follow the white lines / Keep my eyes on the road as I ache.” The raw energy of her following album, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek” (2014), a grunge-guitar shredding record, also received praise from listeners and critics.
Mitski’s tender and emotionally raw music has garnered her a deeply devoted fanbase. Still, she is acutely aware of the unique relationship that has formed between herself, her fans, her art and how her fans have come to see her as a conduit for their own hopes and sorrows. Mitski has expressed discomfort at the realization that in order to make the music she loves, she must, to some degree, submit to being consumed. In an interview with The Guardian, Mitski recalled an incident after a performance at a small venue where she needed to navigate through a crowd in order to reach her dressing room. “People were unrelenting. Everyone needed a piece of me, whether it was a photo, or my autograph, and then I was so overwhelmed being surrounded by hands grabbing at me that I was crying, but they still didn’t seem to see my crying face. People started to grab at my shirt and, by the time I got out, my shirt was basically off. It was an emblematic moment – that has been happening to me in different ways.”
Mitski’s most recent tour was in 2022 for her sixth album, “Laurel Hell” (2022), which I had the opportunity to see at Radio City Music Hall in May that year. Mitski had previously announced an indefinite hiatus in 2019, and rumors swirled that “Laurel Hell” was merely the fulfillment of a contractual obligation. I remember urgently booking the tickets to the concert with a friend after we had heard the first few tracks of the album. The title itself references an Appalachian nickname for the mountain laurel where wanderers, drawn by the plants’ natural beauty, would die after getting stuck. The lyrics of the album, filled with hope, resentment and desperation revolving around her complicated relationship with music and fame, seemed to spell the end. “If I keep myself at home / I won’t make the same mistake / That I made for fifteen years,” she sings in “Love Me More.” “I could be a new girl / I will be a new girl.”
While perhaps the urgency is more pronounced in “Laurel Hell,” the album was not the first time that Mitski has written of her complicated relationship with music. “You’re my number one, you’re the one I want / And you’ve turned down every hand / That has beckoned me to come,” she sings in the track “Geyser” on her critically acclaimed fifth album “Be the Cowboy” (2018). In much of Mitski’s work, music is an entity, a looming figure in her life that she paints as the thing she cannot live without, which has given so much, yet has also taken everything away from her.
This also extends to her performances themselves. Over the years, Mitski has begun to incorporate dance into her performance, working with the choreographer Jas Lin to develop Butoh-inspired choreography, which is a rigid and hyper-controlled style of dance theater that emerged in post-World War II Japan. Simultaneously, Mitski’s performances have taken on the flavor of art pop, her movements animating the archetypes of the coquette, the tortured artist and the seductress. In her performances of “Working for the Knife” (2022), Mitski points her microphone out towards the crowd, gripping it tightly in her fist as she lifts it up to her neck and pulls, mimicking the motion of severing an artery, before dropping the microphone between her thighs and lifting it up sensually, as if pleasuring herself with the tool she had just wielded as a knife.
Part of the allure of Mitski is the belief that her music pours out of her in pure and feverish confession, but Mitski herself has articulated her devotion to craft and technique. “Maybe it just boils down to: I’m a woman who’s really into her career, so I’m obsessed with the craft of my work … There’s a romance in that for me,” Mitski stated in an interview with The New Yorker. The truth of her emotion is in the music. It is genuine and authentic, but it is the craft that comes first.
“The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” sonically diverges from the synth-pop rock-forward sound of its predecessor, “Laurel Hell.” It has a type of surreal, absurd, almost Biblical writing, haunting and vivid as a barren westerly landscape: “Your pain is eased but you’ll never be free,” she sings in “The Deal.” “You believe me like a god / I destroy you like I am,” she sings in “I’m Your Man,” which closes with the sound of yelping hounds and a shrieking toad. Many of the lyrics are of intensely private, grotesque, and absurd vignettes: gorging herself on cake until she’s sick in “I Don’t Like My Mind”; a bird perched on a streetlight at midnight, turning to speak to her in “The Deal”; the sound of hands clapping for her in the dark in “When Memories Snow.” But she also shares moments of ordinary, domestic bliss, instances of divinity in an otherwise barren landscape: “Now I bend like a willow / Thinkin’ of you / Like a murmurin’ brook / Curvin’ about you,” she sings in “Heaven.” She has accomplished a great feat: mesmerizing us with her artistry and vulnerability, rounding out certain corners of herself, yet leaving these vignettes unconnected, so we are left still knowing so little about her.
Mitski accepts interviews and maintains social media profiles (mostly run by her management team), but she has established tight boundaries regarding what she is willing and unwilling to share — a rather uncommon phenomenon for many in her line of work. She is largely removed from the public spotlight when off the stage and often refuses questions that pry into her personal life. She declines to speak on her father’s work, even when describing the nomadic nature of her early years. She does not discuss her love life. “My mom used to sing me a lullaby,” Mitski said in an interview with Dazed when recalling her early memories of music, before slightly shaking her head, “I’m not going to sing it for you, cause that’s just for me.”
There is one particular moment that astounded me when I saw her at Radio City Music Hall. During her sets, she seldom paused to speak to the audience, her gaze often aimed towards the horizon, at some larger crowd beyond, although one stood right before her. Her set was focused, the vast duration of the show dedicated solely to performance, confirming the invisible separation between herself and the crowd. But towards the end, right before her last song, “A Pearl” (2018), she took a few moments to speak to the crowd. “I love you,” she said, her palm over her chest. “And I don’t care if it’s cheesy. Thank you for being here.”
The crowd went wild. The two young girls sitting in front of me waved their hands and wept. A sea of hands raised and reached for her. “Marry me!” someone shouted.
Mitski’s interior life is obscured by meticulously crafted writing and performance and assertive privacy. Ironically, her efforts to protect herself have only made what she protects become all the more sacred and sought. The Mitski who we imagine hidden in a dark bedroom spinning confession into melody, who we reach for and grab at because we wish to take a part of her pain for ourselves, the vessel for our sorrow and hope and longing, exists, but is not for us. Her music at times feels like a can on a string, or song drifting from a room next door. If we bring our ears to the wall, we may listen. But never can we truly see her.