Music Critic Riley Wells reviews Mitski’s dramatic show that shone a light upon the emotional themes of her discography

Written by Riley Wells

Japanese-American indie-pop singer Mitski embarked on the European segment of her tour in April 2022 after the release of her sixth studio album, Laurel Hell. The album saw Mitski depart from her classic, simple guitar or piano in exchange for a very poppy, 80s-inspired synth record, similar in tone to 2018’s Be The Cowboy. During the show, Mitski blended her newer tracks with fan favourites to create a perfect beginner’s guide to her music. I was lucky enough to see her on April 29th at the O2 Academy Brixton, which was simultaneously beautifully poignant and underwhelming.

The opening act was Sasami Ashworth, better known as SASAMI, and she truly set the scene for a spectacular show with her PJ Harvey-inspired sound, electrifying the crowd with tracks such as ‘The Greatest’ and ‘Feminine Water Turmoil.’ By the end of her thirty-minute set, the audience had been set aflame, with the applause lasting well into the break. It was wonderful to see such passionate support for an artist who was unknown to me until she began to play, made sweeter by Sasami’s slightly embarrassed admission that her parents had flown from Los Angeles to watch her sing. A slight downside to SASAMI’s performance was the sound quality at the venue, causing the music to swell at inappropriate times and the vocals to be drowned out. Luckily, crew members managed to resolve the issue during the break, just in time for the main act.

After a half-hour break, Mitski opened her eighty-minute set with ‘Love Me More,’ the last single she released before Laurel Hell. A catchy pop song jam-packed with vibrant synthesisers and 80s beats was the perfect choice to release the pent-up energy in the audience, as well as being a good way to ease into some of the darker tracks on the set list. Although I did not enjoy the song much upon the release of the album, hearing it live, especially with touring musician Bruno Esrubilsky on drums, gave me a new appreciation for the track and the Laurel Hell album overall. Mitski followed up her theatrical opener with another number from the latest album entitled ‘Should’ve Been Me.’ Although upbeat and seemingly cheerful upon a first listen, the lyrics tell a tale of overwhelming regret and pain once someone realises their ex-partner is better off without them. ‘Should’ve Been Me’ is one of the strongest pieces to come out of Laurel Hell and is, at its heart, classic Mitski – regret, grief, and of course, yearning.

Throughout the performances, Mitski’s stage presence was one to be admired, from her command of the crowd to her dramatic choreography

Following on from the opening performances were two tracks from the 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek, ‘Francis Forever’ and ‘First Love / Late Spring.’ ‘Francis Forever’ was a more tender performance, particularly with the audience singing back to Mitski at key points. Hearing five thousand people sing ‘I miss you more than anything’ and knowing they all meant it for different reasons was a beautiful, poignant moment of the show. Similarly, ‘First Love / Late Spring’ was a stunning display of Mitski’s vocal and writing abilities. ‘I was so young when I behaved twenty-five / And now I find I’ve grown into a tall child’ is a personal favourite lyric of mine. Throughout the performances, Mitski’s stage presence was one to be admired, from her command of the crowd to her dramatic choreography, which ranged from acrobatic leaps to simply lying on the floor. Patrick Hyland’s subtle bass riffs were also a strong point of the show, and his genuine care for Mitski as a friend and colleague was evident throughout the concert.

Next, the band launched into a number from 2018 album Be The Cowboy, which was the last album Mitski released before a three-year social media hiatus. ‘Me and My Husband’ details an unhealthy relationship with the belief that the speaker would have no purpose without their relationship. As one of her more famous songs, it became popular on the social media app TikTok in recent years, causing a huge surge in the number of Mitski fans between 2019 and 2020.

Other stand-out moments from the first act included the classic songs, ‘Townie,’ ‘I Don’t Smoke’ and ‘Drunk Walk Home,’ all of which are from Bury Me at Makeout Creek. ‘Townie’ was the first Mitski song I ever heard back in 2019, and its portrayal of teenage angst and coming of age is completely spot on. The crowd was captivated during the piece, an energy that followed into ‘I Don’t Smoke,’ which is known as one of her most deeply painful tracks. Aside from its honest, vulnerable lyricism, the song is one of her best due to the contrast between her gentle voice and the heavy electric guitar. This gives the number a desperate, haunting atmosphere, which was replicated very well despite the noise of the crowd. The last track of the first act, ‘Drunk Walk Home,’ was very similar in content and tone, ending with a furious instrumental. On the record, this instrumental is accompanied by agonised screaming, but on stage the noise of the crowd drowned out much of the second half of the song, which was quite disappointing.

While the first half of the set was mostly defined by Bury Me at Makeout Creek, the second act contained a much more structured list of songs, moving swiftly from 2016’s Puberty 2 to the remaining Laurel Hell singles, with a brief homage to 2013’s Retired From Sad, New Career in Business before ending with three back-to-back tracks from Be The Cowboy. Despite being more well-structured, the second half of the show lacked the same energy found during songs like ‘Townie’, with Mitski instead opting to slowly wind down throughout the evening. This consequently gave the second half of the set a much sadder, sombre atmosphere, mirroring the content of the songs.

The themes of lost love, ageing and nostalgia succinctly summarised the rest of the show

Some of the stand-out pieces from this second act included ‘Your Best American Girl,’ ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs,’ and ‘Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,’ all of which revolve around traumatic events and unrequited love. The behaviour of the crowd reflected the mood of these songs, and I saw several audience members crying. ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ is one of my personal favourites and Mitski definitely did it justice with her melancholy, trailing voice. ‘Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart’ is a lesser-known song from her second album which offered a magnificent homage to her earlier work. Although it is a shame that more of her early numbers weren’t included, it is understandable that she would want to play the newer tracks that contributed to her success in recent years.

In order to wind down the show after a set with such emotional highs and lows, Mitski closed with three tracks from Be The Cowboy, including ‘Two Slow Dancers’ as the encore. This was a perfect choice for the final song, not just because of its slow tempo and soft piano, but because of position at the end of the album. The themes of lost love, ageing and nostalgia succinctly summarised the rest of the show, and the dreamlike strings gave it a sleepy quality to mark the end of the night.

Overall, the concert was a fantastic opportunity to reignite my love for some of my old favourite tracks such as ‘Townie’, but the behaviour of the crowd was at times off-putting and irritating, due to the audience being inexperienced with concert etiquette. Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful for the chance to see her and I cannot wait for the opportunity to see her again.

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