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Mitski plays to an adoring Manchester crowd.
Published: 02/05/2022
  Author + Photos: Eleanor Osada

“Sorry I haven’t said very much between songs,” Mitski says, with a nervous laugh, to a packed-out students’ union, “I’m not very good at the stage banter”.  

It matters little, as the focus tonight is on anything but the repartee. The crowd are obviously, deeply, torridly glad to be here.

Arriving at the venue not long before doors, the queue stretches and snakes down Manchester’s Oxford Road, attracting the attention of passers-by, and allowing for the swivel of all curious heads on the double deckers that cruise past.

It’s hardly a surprise in some ways: Mitski’s success can be measured in streams, followers, critics’ response, TikTok videos that use her audio… Millions upon millions, and many a good word. A flock of people outside what is, all things considered, a small capacity show - especially for an artist of her stature - shouldn’t be a shock.

Yet, it is. There’s a remoteness to a Mitski listen, as if it’s a cloistered affair - her alone, bearing truths in a quiet room, like a confessional. Maybe this is her appeal, the adjacency, the one-on-one vulnerability. It’s all incredibly intimate.

It’s important to note that Mitski’s music is the narrative of an Asian woman, and how she navigates life: through grief, angst, primal desire, shame. Her storytelling will feel familiar to people of colour in the audience tonight, and all too real.

Mitski maintains a strict privacy - as anyone deserves - but has been transparent about the anxieties that her sharp rise to fame has brought. She vowed to fully step away from the music business in 2019, a solid 5 years on the road taking its toll. Not just that, but being propelled to indie stardom frightened her.

“In order for me to survive in the music industry as it exists, I had to stuff a pillow over my heart and tell it to stop screaming, and be like, ‘Shut up, shut up, take it,’”, she told Rolling Stone, at the end of last year. The conflict between loving, and wanting to, write and perform - versus the consequence of becoming a commodity, grabby hands all insisting on a piece of you — it is a heavy paradox.

Even writing this article detailing her performance feels blasphemous, as if it were a night we all swore into a sacred oath - never to speak of what we witnessed.

Her songs are bursts of intense feelings, all very succinct - 2 to 3 minutes each. Some feel like they’re over in an instant, although the setlist is densely packed with a generous 22 songs.

For a tour in support of Mitski’s latest, ‘Laurel Hell’, released only in February, the setlist is actually on level-pegging with her 2018 triumph, ‘Be The Cowboy’, with 6 tracks apiece. It would be difficult to neglect a record as ginormous and well loved as the latter, but equally, it’s the very collective of tracks that brought her to a despised, dizzying height. 

Aside from a prop door (in its doorframe) centre-stage and different washes of coloured lights, it’s simple. But for a Mitski performance, anything more would be unwarranted. “I don’t want to do pyrotechnics. I don’t want to do big LED screens. I want to make sure that everything onstage exists because it has to be there. I want the whole show to feel essential. I don’t want anything superfluous”, she told Vulture.

Other, smaller-scale props come in the form of paper planes, and a knife - fittingly, for ‘Working for the Knife’, which she mock-slashes across her throat as she dances.

There’s a deep theatricality to a Mitski show: it’s a real performance. Mitski studied the art of theatre at length, and it shows. Her movements draw parallels with, say, Kate Bush, or Florence Welch — the airiness of a woman in a white dress. Yet, Mitski’s ballet feels burdened - as in, there’s a weight, a sadness, to her choreography.

Tonight’s crowd are extremely vocal, nearly every song receiving equal whoop and cheer. Despite a semi-viral, now deleted tweet (from management, on behalf of Mitski — she has been away from social media since 2019) calling for people to use their phones less at shows, the opening notes of her biggest songs still prompts a sea of screens to the sky.

“Sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together”, one tweet in the thread read. It’s easy to see why, as the airspace during ’Nobody’ becomes so crowded with arms and phones, it’s hard to see Mitski past them. But then again, people want a little memento of the night, that’s all - they want to capture their favourite song, especially after a good few years of nothing.

The closer, ‘Two Slow Dancers’, is almost supernatural in its feel. With just soft synth pads and a dreamy, slightly somber vocal, the room is drenched in silence for the first time. Very unlike a standard set that ends with a greatest hit, or the explosion of confetti cannons, Mitski graciously takes a bouquet that’s belted her way, waves and leaves. The lights come back on, and it feels as if everything’s changed.