ShowBox Sodo, Seattle
October 31st, 2018
Photography by Joe Duquette
Mitski Miyawaki is one of the indie rock icons of our time. After releasing her excellent college projects, Lush (2012) and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business (2013), she made waves with the 2015 gem Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Its lyrical candor and lo-fi garage rock sound were further refined on Puberty 2, released in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim. Now, Mitski returns with this year’s Be the Cowboy, trading distorted guitars for a disco-show-tune-synth-pop album that personifies the American cowboys “of myth and legend.” Along her album tour, Mitski stopped at the ShowBox Sodo—arguably Seattle’s worst venue, but a mistake we will overlook—and helped us all Become the Cowboy.
The best part of Mitski’s concert was without a doubt the visuals. Every song was color coded with vibrant blue, green, red, and/or yellow lighting and the screens backing the band displayed moving scenes of forested roads, sweeping landscapes, and kaleidoscopic fractals, depending on the song. Even more captivating than these, however, was Mitski’s choice to include elements of dance throughout the concert. When she announced choreography would be interwoven into this tour, I was admittedly skeptical—do we really need another sing-and-dance pop act? However, it was an essential aspect of the night’s performance, heightening her already emotive music. “Me and My Husband” both characterizes and satirizes a housewife in love, and Mitski’s slow and sultry movements fit perfectly with this portrayal. The frantic, frustrated stomps of the insistent “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” make the audience feel as distressed as she does. The ending of this song remains especially vivid in my memory: Mitski is on the ground, arms outstretched and flailing in a Florence and the Machine-caliber rock and roll fall that feels at once like a catharsis finally attained and a plea for reconciliation.
Her setlist covered all of the hits, and remained (mostly) faithful to their original arrangements. Most striking was Mitski’s voice; it is noticeably weaker and more airy in a live setting. On songs such as “First Love/Late Spring” and “Dan the Dancer,” which are more aggressive in their instrumentals, this is an interesting juxtaposition. It is especially nice on soft songs like the crooning “Come into the Water” and “A Burning Hill.” Often times, however, the quality of her voice leaves something to be desired when compared to the strength and nuance of her recorded vocals, making more expressive songs lose their edge. That being said, Mitski’s voice and overall performance did improve as the night progressed. The ballade “I Want You” and Bury Me at Makeout Creek favorite, “Drunk Walk Home” were both filled with fervor and were undoubtedly highlights of the night. “Your Best American Girl,” is the rock anthem of the decade, and on it both Mitski and the audience truly let loose. It felt like she had been saving the bulk of her energy for that track in particular, but she clearly had more left to give; the night’s closer, the unexpected “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart” from Sad, New Career in Business had all of the nuance and expression that Mitski’s voice had been missing that night.
Given the rich assortment of themes on Be the Cowboy, I was expecting more cohesion throughout the performance and for those themes to be more prevalent. All of Mitski’s songs are relatively short, so with minimal transitions between them the concert quickly started to feel like a jukebox flipping mechanically from one song to the next. Am I saying that Mitski should have ridden out on a pony to the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, lasso in hand? No. However, it does feel like an opportunity was missed to use Be the Cowboy to create a more immersive concert experience. All this said, one thing is for certain: Mitski has a very precise idea of how she wants her concerts to look and sound, and knows exactly how to execute that vision.