Mitski Miyawaki was born in Japan to an American father and Japanese mother. She studied at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music, during which she self-released her first two albums, 2012’s Lush and 2013’s Retired From Sad, New Career in Business. Both albums are centered around Mitski’s piano and are formative efforts that merely hint at Mitski’s potential.
After college, Mitski served a short stint as the vocalist in the prog-metal band Voice Coils. She released 2014’s guitar rock album Bury Me At Make Out Creek, her first record to gain wider recognition. Mitski’s too creative and idiosyncratic for mainstream success but she’s steadily built a profile; 2016’s Puberty 2 and 2018’s more pop-oriented Be The Cowboy cracked the top ten on many year-end lists.
Mitski’s songs have a fascinating dichotomy; she’s protective of her personal life but writes supposedly soul-baring songs, so it’s difficult to tell what’s fiction and what’s autobiographical. Mitski has spoken about her upbringing as a cross-cultural child, and themes of isolation and awkwardness are prominent in her work.
Mitski’s a strong vocalist, an interesting lyricist, and a skilled musician who’s improved with each record she’s released. Iggy Pop has named Mitski as “probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know”.
Mitski Album Reviews
Mitski self-released her debut album Lush at the age of 22, while still studying at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music. It’s a brief 24 minute record that documents Mitski as a work-in-progress, like she’s released her university music assignments for her fans’ enjoyment. Mitski largely accompanies herself on piano, sometimes backed by orchestral instrumentation.
There’s a Björk influence on Lush, most notably on ‘Eric’, as Mitski employs unsettling background textures. Mitski’s lyrical preoccupations aren’t markedly different than her later records, and this couplet from ‘Wife’ encapsulates her themes of isolation and cross-cultural confusion; “I’m here at my cliff looking down/I cannot bear you a son, but I will try/For if I am not yours, what am I?”
The only song that deviates from glacially-paced piano is the guitar heavy alt-rock of ‘Brand New City’, which presages where Mitski would take her music on 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek.
It’s a privilege to hear Mitski’s early sketches, but they’re not as accomplished as her official albums – it’s better to start with her later work and come back to Lush once you’re a committed fan.
Retired From Sad, New Career in Business
Like Lush, Retired From Sad, New Career in Business is another brief, self-released album from Mitski. It’s a step forward – her arranging skills are more developed, and the orchestration is often unexpected and ear-catching. But like Lush, it’s mostly comprised of slow songs, and less exciting than her later work.
The only respite from the slow pace of Retired is ‘Strawberry Blond’, driven by an acoustic guitar strum and with a folk lilt. Among the slower songs, the waltz-time ‘I Want You’ is pretty, while ‘Because Dreaming Costs Money, My Dear’ has pretty arrangements. The colleage-age lust of ‘Shame’ makes for effective drama, with Mitski’s voice spiralling into the stratosphere.
At 24 minutes, and packed with slow tempos, Retired From Sad, New Career in Business isn’t as satisfying as Mitski’s later work, but there’s evidence of a talented vocalist and arranger coming into her own.
Bury Me at Make Out Creek
After two albums of genteel piano and orchestra, Mitski made a radical change for her first label-released record. She learned to play guitar, reasoning that it would allow for more dynamic live shows. Bury Me at Make Out Creek is guitar-heavy alt-rock, reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s 1990s records. The change is beneficial – Bury Me at Make Out Creek is more energetic than Mitski’s previous records, while still retaining her unique lyrical perspective and sophisticated songwriting.
The most hard-hitting lyric is featured on ‘Townie’ – “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony” is twisted imagery, and the conclusion “I am not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be” is quintessentially Mitski. On the abrasive ‘Drunk Walk Home’, where Mitski descends into cathartic screaming, but Bury Me at Make Out Creek is not exclusively aggressive rock; opener ‘Texas Reznikoff’ starts deceptively acoustic before ratcheting up the tension. ‘First Love / Late Spring’ and ‘Last Words of a Shooting Star’ are pretty and gentle.
Bury Me at Make Out Creek is a stunning career reinvention, with Mitski excelling in her newly chosen genre of abrasive rock.
Bury Me at Make Out Creek was purposely a simple album that could be recreated live. Puberty 2 is also focused on guitar-heavy alt-rock, but with more detailed arrangements. There’s more focus on rhythm – the opener ‘Happy’ is based around an industrial pulse, while ‘Once More To See You’ utilises the “kick kick kick snare” beat from ‘Be My Baby’.
Despite the extra studio candy, Puberty 2 is similar in structure to its predecessor; like Bury Me at Make Out Creek, track seven is the most abrasive – ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’ is a brief blast of punk energy. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is the standout track – it features a terrific opening line, “If I could, I’d be your little spoon/And kiss your fingers forevermore,” while it’s reminiscent of the Pixies with its bass-driven opening and quiet/loud dynamics. ‘I Bet On Losing Dogs’ is mournful and pretty, while Mitski has cited the atmospheric imagery of ‘A Burning Hill’ as her favourite song here.
Puberty 2 doesn’t break much new ground for Mitski, but it’s a very strong record and ‘Your Best American Girl’ is one of the best rock songs of its decade.
Be The Cowboy
Be The Cowboy adds a poppy facade to Mitski’s alt-rock; sometimes it features outbursts of noisy guitar, like on ‘A Pearl’. At other times Mitski opts for a pop-oriented approach; the chunky guitars of ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me’ are juxtaposed against a peppy synth line. ‘Me and My Husband’ is weirdly futuristic pop-soul with piano, synths, and horns all competing for attention.
The 14 songs of Be The Cowboy run just over half an hour, with individual songs often clocking in under two minutes. Three or four-minute songs are usually the building blocks of pop albums, so these short pieces are refreshing. The overall effect is like that of a movie, especially when there are clear themes running through these songs.
Mitski has been protective of her personal life, so it’s difficult to tell what’s fiction and what’s autobiographical here, but there are themes of isolation and repression within a relationship on Be The Cowboy. The album’s second song, ‘Nobody’, opens with the lyrics “My God, I’m so lonely/So I open the window/To hear sounds of people”.
Be The Cowboy is a phenomenally strong album, balancing creative textures and themes with an unerring pop sense that makes it an easy record to access.
Mitski’s Be The Cowboy is my favourite album of 2018 and possibly of its entire decade. On it, the Japanese-born musician seemingly had endless possibilities, her musically sophisticated songs exploring the palette of studio pop confections. It’s taken four years for a follow-up to emerge – and where Be The Cowboy was full of wide-eyed wonder, Laurel Hell is the work of an artist who’s reached the top and is now questioning the futility of the exercise. The title comes from Southern Appalachia, where laurel bushes grow in impenetrable thickets – the flowers are beautiful, but according to legend, it’s almost impossible to escape.
Even though Laurel Hell is less buoyant than its predecessor, Mitski’s still a cut above most of her contemporaries. Her frustrations are clear on lead single ‘Working For The Knife’ – “I used to think I’d be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same.” Some of the tracks recall the chamber-pop of Be The Cowboy – ‘Should’ve Been Me’ is full of twisting melodic ideas, but the lyrics are still resigned to failure. Mitski sings “must be lonely loving someone/Tryna to find their way out of a maze.”
But Mitski also introduces dance beats and disco synth leads to her music – it’s a welcome addition to what would otherwise become a downer of an album. Closer ‘That’s Our Lamp’ sounds positively joyful, even though the lyrics are about the end of a relationship. ‘Stay Soft’ is also guarded about love, singing “Open up your heart/Like the gates of hell”.
Mitski has made stronger albums, but she’s still one of the most creative and vital musicians of her generation.
Ten Best Mitski Songs
Your Best American Girl
First Love / Late Spring
I Bet On Losing Dogs
Me And My Husband
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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