“I’m glad people are crying,” Mitski Miyawaki said in 2014 when she released her third album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek. But her reputation for penning alt-rock tear-jerkers has since become unwelcome. “I was always bothered when people say, ‘I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal,’” she said in the run-up to her new album, Be the Cowboy.
At the Shepherds Bush Empire, the Pennsylvania-based musician looked around the auditorium before her band struck up the first song, perhaps scanning faces to ensure no eyes were welling up or lower lips quivering. “I gave too much of my heart tonight,” she sang in the opening song, “Remember My Name” — a pre-emptive strike against anyone expecting her to lay her heart on the line during this particular night.
The 2,000-capacity venue was among the largest she has headlined to date. Over the course of her five albums Mitski has become an indie darling, the regular recipient of fussily ecstatic notices from the likes of Pitchfork, which duly awarded Be the Cowboy an 8.8 rating.
Her new songs bristle a bit at the praise, or at least the possibility of complacency that the praise carries with it. The music takes unexpected stylistic turns. Themes of solitude and apartness — the source of the sadness supposedly residing in her work — are swapped for themes of togetherness. Surreal lyrics and role-play disrupt linkages between art and life.
At the Empire, she put on a highly stylised performance, a deliberate act of self-distancing. If there was a challenge here, it applied as much to her as her audience. In the past Mitski has played bass at her shows but here she concentrated solely on singing, thus depriving herself of a familiar prop. She took on the role of the frontperson at its purest in a dauntless fashion, devising an elaborate choreography of gestures and movements to go with her vocals. Her routines were compulsively watchable.
The rest of the set-up was basic. A guitarist, drummer, keyboardist and a bassist who also played keyboards joined Mitski on the otherwise empty stage. But their musicianship was expressive — especially Patrick Hyland on guitar, who varied tone from chugging alt-rock riffs to more unpredictable outbreaks of action. Mitski’s vocals also shifted around fluently, one moment downbeat or laconic, the next more intense. Her movements grew progressively wilder during the set, as though collapsing the distance between herself and the audience, which reacted with ever wilder cheers in response. There was scarcely an undry eye in the house.
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