It’s happening: Mitski is back. Aside from a few collaborations and soundtrack appearances for other projects, it’s been more than two years of radio silence for the now 31-year-old musician, who announced an indefinite hiatus from her performances at the end of her last tour. in 2019. She suddenly reactivated all of her social media accounts last Monday to announce her return, even though she herself remained off-limits to fans, instead ceding the keys to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to her management.
It was a shocking and exciting time for those of us who have missed her in the meantime, hoping she was resting and recharging herself as we continued to inhale the music she had left us with in the meantime. Not only was Mitski back, we were told, but with only a 24 hour warning, she was due to release a new song: “Working for the Knife”, which was released last Tuesday and was accompanied by a music video. video, a mysterious merch, and 2022 tour dates for North America, Europe and the UK Presales and regular tickets sold out almost immediately, indicating that his absence didn’t cause him to lose any fans – perhaps, in fact, it was the opposite. More than a handful of his songs have gone viral on TikTok over the past two years, introducing his music to a whole new legion of fans.
At just over two and a half minutes, “Working for the Knife” is a low-key track, and while it might not be a pop-disco banger like its 2018 hit “Nobody,” it’s a reminder that Mitski is a classically trained musician. The relative subtlety of the track is determined and powerful; it’s emblematic of what continues to lead some listeners to revisit and fall in love with his tracks that they may have initially rejected. There’s a reason Iggy Pop once described her as “possibly the most advanced American songwriter I know.” A 2018 NPR headline called her “21st poet laureate of the century of youth.
For her big comeback, Mitski offers us a simple framework that serves to showcase her talent for writing sharp lyrics, alternating certain words to convey the symbolism of the very “knife” that she deplores. This metaphor could mean a lot of things, from the conformity of a capitalist society to the obsolescence that comes with aging or the internal pressure of perfectionism and mental illness. Mitski’s words might even hint at external pressure from the music industry itself. In a slender delivery, Mitski equates “living”, “working” and “dying”, each in terms of how we exist “under the knife”, and she leaves the door open for anyone to interpret this in their own way.
The music video for “Working for the Knife” is a whole different beast, talking a lot more about his return as an artist in the public eye. No one – not the fans, not the internet that continues to romanticize her – had seen the artist since she went dark after her finale. Be the cowboy tour in September 2019, held in Central Park in New York. There’s no doubt Mitski used her surprise re-emergence to make a statement about what to expect from her music now that it’s back. But the visuals force us to reconsider our understanding of her, too.
At the start of the video, the handheld camera shakes like a camcorder in The Blair Witch Project, and we hear the steady click of spurred heels on the concrete. Blurry, a figure wearing a black leather trench coat and matching cowboy hat comes out of the darkness and appears. The lens struggles to focus on her face as she walks away, but we know who it is. This is the person Mitski seemed destined to be after the 2018 breakthrough Be the cowboy, which earned him album of the year accolades from outlets like Pitchfork and Vulture. She told us she wanted to “be the cowboy,” and what could be more cowboy than going back to town after mysteriously disappearing from the spotlight for a few years?
Yet the dressing is just a dressing, as we find out. Mitski mimics one last puff of a cigarette, then pointedly throws the outfit away, leaving the cowboy behind to reveal an azure two-piece outfit. It is a symbolic and explicit gesture; after his time away from the prying eyes of his fans, the era of the cowboy is over. Who is Mitski instead plays out in the rest of the video, in which she plays an increasingly baffling choreography to portray someone who doesn’t quite agree, it seems.
The dance that defines “Working for the Knife” may surprise more casual fans, but those who remember his live performances will recognize it. While physical performance has been important to Mitski’s act for years – remember her NPR Tiny Desk ensemble, in which she belted in her guitar strings – she first introduced experimental dance moves into his live shows at the start of the long Be the cowboy tour with guidance from performance artist Monica Mirabile. The addition of the choreography completely changed the experience of his live performances: now, instead of the typical guitar and mic setup, there was robotic rhythm running through the stage, jerky greetings, hopping and, most memorable, its interactions with the hands.
By the time Mitski wrapped up her tour just over a year later, in the fall of 2019, she was wearing spandex shorts and knee pads to facilitate her increasingly acrobatic choreography. There was now furniture that she could use as props, and she would even lie upside down on a table at one point during the show, cycling with her legs in a yoga-like plow pose at roaring approval from the crowd. The only time the artist addressed the crowd was to introduce her group to them, her eyes turned to the horizon. There was a well-oiled machine quality to his routine; it was organic but rigid, expressive but restrained.
Mitski still uses a mix of performance art and dance in her music videos two years later, even after the indefinite hiatus she took that left her future hanging in the air. But now something is different. In “Working for the Knife”, she walks into a theater, where she licks a handrail and slowly crawls up the stairs on her hands and knees, as if something is pulling her gently towards the stage in front of her, where the spotlight is on her. inevitably wait.
Mitski has always been in control.
As the song draws to a close, Mitski is on stage, his back to the empty room. The lights come on, indicating that this one-woman show for no one is over, and she stares wide-eyed into the camera, looking scared for the first time. She sings the last lines of the verse, “I’m Dying for the Knife,” and mimics slitting her throat with a finger. When she falls on her back, the camera rolls back and the song is over.
In the silence, Mitski hoists himself halfway up the ground and the atmosphere changes. The spotlight switches to a darker, more colorful strobe, and she begins to ripple her body, pumping herself up and down on her knees, reaching her neck and then the sky. It is here that we see the influence of the Japanese art of butoh in his choreography; the moves are now both lonely and sexual in nature – we’ve taken a turn towards something darker.
“Is Mitski okay?” Some fans asked, after watching this last part of the video. Numerous comments on YouTube express their excitement at the prospect of her making music again and their concern about her happiness. This possessed dancer is not the rested and recharged Mitski that some expected to see. But anyone who questions the artist’s composure need only look at his career for an answer. Her Be the cowboy The song “Geyser” is an intimate song of the same mastery of herself, the lyrics of which may make it seem like she is declaring herself in love, but in an interview with NPR in 2018, Mitski revealed that it is. the music and the writing itself that she promised herself – these are the things that have always meant the most to her. “I’ll be what I need to be,” she said. “I will do whatever it takes to keep making music.” It’s this manic force that sees the five studio albums she released before she even turned 30 and that propelled her through years of uninterrupted touring until she finally had to give herself a break. in the momentum.
As the video draws to a close, we are subjected to the cyclical exorcism of this desire to continue, the heavy breathing and thud of her body as she leaps onto the stage with abandon. Wait a second, it’s a deer dying by the side of the road; the next is a cockroach, convulsing on its back. Unlike the rest of the choreography, which is controlled and measured, these last few minutes are ugly, primitive and vulnerable. When Mitski collapsed for the last time, having fully exercised, she turns to the camera with a look of absolute euphoria.
This last moment is what is most revealing of “Working for the Knife” and the simultaneous return of Mitski. The gap between the carefree cowboy of the 2018 album and the intimate hysteria of this latest physical performance may be too big to reconcile for some, but it bears repeating that Mitski has always been in control. Everything she writes or performs is an extension of her mastery as an artist, no matter how sad or chaotic some may call it. In interviews, she has often complained that critics who characterize her work as “denominational” or “emotional” take her own agency out of the music she makes. At the end of the song, at the end of the day, at the end of the world, it doesn’t really matter to her who’s listening or watching. It’s always been about music and what she does for herself. Don’t worry about Mitski. She’s doing more than fine, she’s doing what she loves and she’s finally ready to share it with us again.