Arts

An Essential Mitski Primer

Credit…Ebru Yildiz

By Lindsay Zoladz

Dear listeners,

The singer-songwriter Mitski first caught my ear in 2014, when she released the sharply penned and tunefully guitar-driven album “Bury Me at Makeout Creek.” (It’s a “Simpsons” reference.)

I clocked her then as a smart chronicler of millennial malaise and a punk-adjacent indie-rocker working in the D.I.Y. tradition, figuring she’d subsequently release a few more albums that fit that description. I could not have predicted where she’d go in the next decade: an Oscar nomination for a song she wrote with Son Lux and David Byrne, an accidental and somewhat reluctant foray into TikTok stardom, and a creatively adventurous, consistently challenging discography that includes her seventh studio album, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We,” which is out today.

“A Mitski song lasts about as long as it takes to poach an egg,” E. Alex Jung wrote in a profile of Mitski last year. “They are small and will knock you out, like pearls slipped inside the left ventricle of your heart.” I like thinking of Mitski songs in these terms, polished and self-contained, but sneakily potent. She perfected that method of songwriting on her 2018 album “Be the Cowboy,” which contained a song that, appropriately enough, likened the creative process to having “a pearl in my head” that the singer would “roll around every night just to watch it glow.”

“The Land Is Inhospitable” is a veritable string of such pearls. Its songs sound labored over, yes, but they also have a looseness and an airiness, which are not qualities I usually associate with Mitski. With tracks like the lilting ballad “Heaven” or the country-tinged “The Frost,” listening to this album feels like stumbling upon the welcome glow of a crowded saloon in the middle of a desolate night, beckoned by the inviting sounds of someone casually playing music inside.

It also feels like a notable departure, maybe even a course correction, from the more pop-oriented direction Mitski seemed to be on with her previous album, the new wave-y “Laurel Hell.” I spent some time with Mitski right before the release of that album, when I was profiling her for The New York Times Magazine, and found her to be a thoughtful and refreshing voice of skepticism in this musical era of algorithmic optimization. Mitski had stumbled into virality — through no effort of her own, her songs “Washing Machine Heart” and “Nobody” became TikTok hits in 2021 — and found the experience strange and disorienting. Rather than try to replicate that success, she’s followed a muse that has led to more mature sounds. “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” is not one of her most immediate albums, but over repeated listens, I think it reveals itself to be one of her best.

I also think it’s best appreciated in the context of Mitski’s larger discography, which I’m going to spotlight on today’s playlist. If you’re unfamiliar with her music, it serves as a comprehensive introduction to her sound. And if you’re already a Mitski fan, I hope it will provide connections between her new and old songs and give you an entry point into her latest album.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

1. “Bug Like an Angel” (2023)

The leadoff track and first single from “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” showcases two of Mitski’s signature songwriting skills: her knack for succinct, imagistic lyrics (“There’s a bug like an angel stuck to the bottom of my glass”) and her affinity for unexpected contrasts between quiet and loud. Here, that dynamism comes from the tension between Mitski’s flat, lonely vocal during the verses and the resounding, earnest backing choir that bursts forth from the void without warning, tearing the roof right off what seemed to be a muted, acoustic lament. (Listen on YouTube)

2. “Your Best American Girl” (2016)

And here, that dynamism comes from a quick stomp on the distortion pedal. “You’re an all-American boy,” Mitski hollers on this sky-scraping chorus, “I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” A standout from what is still my favorite Mitski album, the impeccably named “Puberty 2,” “Your Best American Girl” is also on my long list of best songs of the millennium so far. (Listen on YouTube)

3. “Townie” (2014)

Sometimes — especially on her earlier, more rock-oriented albums — Mitski will kick a song into a high gear immediately and continue escalating the intensity until the track sounds like it’s ready to burst into flames. That approach works well on the blazing “Townie,” a cathartic exorcism of 20-something anxiety from her 2014 album, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek.” “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony,” she sings, translating the song’s frantic momentum into another memorable image. (Listen on YouTube)

4. “Heaven” (2023)

Mitski’s music occasionally contains a faint country influence, albeit filtered through her own distinct sensibility. I hear some of that on this lovely ballad from the new album, but I also hear Mitski experimenting with sounds she hasn’t before explored on her records, like chamber-pop grandiosity and soaring orchestral accompaniments. (Listen on YouTube)

5. “Lonesome Love” (2018)

The country influence is more pronounced here, on this galloping ditty from the aptly named 2018 album “Be the Cowboy.” So is Mitski’s wry sense of humor: “In the morning, in a taxi I am so very paying for.” (Listen on YouTube)

6. “Stay Soft” (2022)

Here is my favorite song from Mitski’s previous album, “Laurel Hell,” which has the slightly misleading reputation as her happiest, poppiest release. (The opening track, “Valentine, Texas,” is one of many brooding songs that complicate that understanding.) On this song Mitski demonstrates how much depth she can mine from a seemingly simple lyric and a satisfying chord progression. “Open up your heart, like the gates of hell,” she sings, a perfect encapsulation of her macabre take on romance. (Listen on YouTube)

7. “Nobody” (2018)

This glistening, disco-kissed confession of loneliness is perhaps Mitski’s best-known song, thanks to its unexpected popularity on TikTok. “I don’t get it, but it’s nice!” Mitski told me last year, when asked about her fame on the app, which she is not on, herself. “All of the businesspeople are like, ‘This is so great!’ And I’m like, ‘Please stop texting me these TikToks.’” (Listen on YouTube)

8. “Francis Forever” (2014)

An early example, from “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” of Mitski’s command of pop melody, “Francis Forever” charts the emotional and physical restlessness that comes from missing someone: “I don’t know what to do without you,” Mitski croons, “I don’t know where to put my hands.” (Listen on YouTube)

9. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” (2016)

I love the rough-hewed texture and unrelenting fury of this highlight from “Puberty 2,” which plays out like a stream-of-consciousness airing of quarter-life grievances: “I wanna see the whole world!/I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent!” Each line is delivered with the urgency of an inebriated epiphany shouted at a close friend during the waning hours of a house party. (Listen on YouTube)

10. “Class of 2013” (2013)

Mitski released her first two albums, “Lush” (2012) and “Retired From Sad, New Career in Business” (2013), in relative obscurity when she was a student at SUNY Purchase’s Conservatory of Music. Although these albums have belatedly become popular with some of her fans, for their uninhibited expressions of young-adult angst, they mostly still feel like rough drafts of what was to come. An exception is this brief, raw, piano-driven song, which culminates in Mitski letting out a blistering howl and foreshadows the clear, concise songwriting style of her best later work. (Listen on YouTube)

11. “My Love Mine All Mine” (2023)

“Nothing in the world belongs to me but my love,” Mitski sings on her latest single, a warm, lushly atmospheric ballad that exemplifies the easy confidence and sonic spaciousness of her seventh album. (Listen on YouTube)

I work better under a deadline,

Lindsay


The Amplifier Playlist

Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“An Essential Mitski Primer” track list
Track 1: “Bug Like an Angel”
Track 2: “Your Best American Girl”
Track 3: “Townie”
Track 4: “Heaven”
Track 5: “Lonesome Love”
Track 6: “Stay Soft”
Track 7: “Nobody”
Track 8: “Francis Forever”
Track 9: “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”
Track 10: “Class of 2013”
Track 11: “My Love Mine All Mine”


Bonus Tracks

Jon Pareles profiled the Rolling Stones (!) ahead of the band’s forthcoming album, “Hackney Diamonds,” and, among other impressive things, made Keith Richards cry: “Thanks for bringing me to tears.” I know you want to find out why.

Speaking of the Stones, this David Marchese interview with the Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner is … really something.

And if it’s new music you’re looking for, as ever, we’ve got a Playlist for that. This week’s selections feature Maren Morris, Chris Stapleton and Cat Power. Listen here.

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