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Mitski’s pain-forged performance art enraptures a sold-out First Ave

Mitski

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You know that line from Mean Girls? “I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip-flops, so I bought army pants and flip-flops”?

Well, one of the first times I saw Mitski was in 2015 opening for Elvis Depressedly in a 300-cap room in the little city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and she was playing a hot-pink bass. Suddenly I needed a hot-pink bass.

Not long after, during a set at a Starbucks-slash-show-venue on Northeastern University’s campus, she wore a WORST BEHAVIOR crew neck. And so I began caring about Nothing Was the Same.

She reviewed Harry Stylesglowingly—for Talkhouse last year, and you would not believe how great I think One Direction is now.

All I’m saying is, if anyone scrawled a stalker-style lipstick love letter to Mitski on a First Avenue mirror Friday night it definitely was not me.

Honestly? It could’ve been anyone. After a spring sharing arena stages with Lorde and Run the Jewels, Mitski Miyawaki is headlining a 24-date U.S. tour behind her new record Be the Cowboy. Every last night of it—including four consecutive nights in Brooklyn—is sold out.

Mitski has always been an object of obsession for fans. You can see the reverent looks on the faces of this First Ave crowd. From the first buzzy notes of “Remember My Name,” everyone was rapt. The opening notes of every song, in fact, were met by screams; people hollered, “I love you!” during the brief pauses between them as though Mitski was Harry Styles herself.

In a long black dress with long black sleeves and stockings (also black), she was impossible to look away from—mostly because you didn’t want to miss what she was doing up there. The multi-instrumentalist has set down the bass for this tour; she needed her hands for the small performance art piece that unfolded over an hour and a half Friday night. Mitski pointed, she paced, she pantomimed, she conducted. She pulled out a chair during “Dan the Dancer,” and sat, or manspread, or crossed and uncrossed her legs, a slow-motion suggestiveness in each calculated switch of her calves.

Mitski and her band were backed by a triptych of screens projecting different videos depending on the song. Black-and-white eyes bored into you during “I Don’t Smoke”; stars shooting by made “I Want You” feel like a waltz through space. As clouds billowed behind her throughout “Tell Me No,” a pair of bright-yellow spotlights struck her face, but she was no deer caught in them. She seemed powerful, mysterious, otherworldly. There was old magic in these motions.

Hers is the kind of rise that tempts hyperbole: lightning-fast, meteoric. For a long time, I thought she got so big so quickly because her feminine sadness tapped so successfully into an undercurrent of unnamed misery I see in so many of my contemporaries.

But then Mitski took that sad and weaponized it. On Be the Cowboy, her fifth full-length, the protagonist’s message is that you’ll have to save yourself in this one. “The album title kind of came from the fact that I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, ‘Be the cowboy you wish to see the world,’ whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I’m worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more,” she told the Outline in August.

Be the Cowboy might be Mitski’s most self-assured record, but like its predecessors, it deals in the messy stuff of love: loneliness, missed shots, messed-up marriages, that feeling of never quite being enough. So, there were times in the set where she let that tough-guy facade crumble. During some moments, slumped over in her chair, she projected a weariness. It was just her and her guitar during “A Burning Hill,” and singing about loving the littler things, without her gang of bandits, she was vulnerable.

After all, the guns-blazing thing can only take you so far; someone’s gotta sweep after you shoot up the saloon. There’s a moment on “First Love/Late Spring” where, before admitting she’d been crying like a “tall child” of late, she tries to convince herself that “wild women don’t get the blues.”

But we all know even cowboys do. Even the girl ones.

Critics’ bias: If you read this far, you know that I’m but a ball of bias shaped like a human woman.

The crowd: Only saw one girl openly weeping, but then, I was standing sort of far back.

Random notebook dump: Fun fact about First Ave staffers: About 40 percent are left-handed. Or so a bartender told this southpaw as she signed for a PBR. The more you know!

Setlist

Remember My Name
I Don’t Smoke
Washing Machine
First Love / Late Spring
Francis Forever
Me and My Husband
Dan the Dancer
Once More to See You
A Pearl
Thursday Girl
I Will
Townie
Nobody
I Bet on Losing Dogs
I Want You
Your Best American Girl
Why Didn’t You Stop Me?
Geyser
Happy
Come Into the Water
Drunk Walk Home
A Burning Hill

Encore

Two Slow Dancers
Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart