Mitski review – a triumphant return for the poet laureate of outsiders

<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer

Manchester Academy
After a TikTok hit brought her out of early retirement, the US songwriter reaches deep into her back catalogue for a taut, artful and intense set

Dressed in a prim, billowing white dress, Mitski holds her microphone high over her head, bringing it down very deliberately towards her. The song she sings is called Working for the Knife, from her recent sixth album, Laurel Hell – her most commercial outing yet, full of lush 80s productions and electronic drama. And the mic is a dagger aimed at Mitski’s soft parts.

Working for the Knife can be read as a generalised cry of defeat in the face of dehumanising work. More specifically, it relays Mitski’s own internal struggles as an artist. In 2019, the US singer-songwriter decided to quit music after one final concert, exhausted to the point of dissociating from gruelling tours and the expectation that, as a confessional female singer, nothing in her life was off limits.

Having quit, force majeure thrust this intense, thoughtful artist – it’s no exaggeration to call Mitski a Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift for watchful, yearning outsiders – back into the ring. Owing her record company one more album was probably the main driver. Then she had an unexpected pandemic TikTok hit.

Mitski’s 2018 song Nobody – a cry of existential loneliness on a par with the Smiths – found her desperately flinging open windows to hear “sounds of people”. Although she wrote the song about an ill-considered solo holiday to Kuala Lumpur, TikTok unexpectedly made Nobody into a lockdown anthem, introducing her to a new generation of fans. The audience bellow it so loudly they drown Mitski out, something that happens often tonight.

Her work speaks intimately to anyone whose indoor world varies from that of the dominant culture outside

It turns out that she also found it unexpectedly difficult to stop turning her thoughts into tunes. So Working for the Knife – and the album that sits around it – is a glossy document of deep ambivalence and abject surrender. In that it far exceeds its grudging remit, it’s a close cousin of Charli XCX’s latest contract-fulfilling pop bomb Crash; there are shades, too, of Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, a pointed double album addressed to his ex-wife, who stood to gain half the royalties. Mitski, it seems, has accepted her fate: “dying for the knife”. By the end of the song, she has crumpled to the floor.

It has become rote to complain about artists complaining about being famous. But in Mitski’s case, this is just the latest chapter in a long and seething existential melodrama, in which this artist coolly interrogates selfhood over and over: who to be, how to be and, chillingly, sometimes, whether to be at all. All of these extremes of emotion are squeezed into taut songs and artful performances that draw from mime, Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty and the ideas of RSC director Peter Brook.

This daughter of a Japanese mother and American father moved around a lot as a child, spending time in Turkey, China, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, code-switching as she went. If army brats and third culture kids had an unofficial poet laureate, it would be Mitski. But her work speaks intimately to anyone whose indoor world varies from that of the dominant culture outside. Her 2016 song Your Best American Girl – a euphoric mid-set bounce-along – confronts Mitski’s failed efforts to supersede differences in upbringing. “Your mother would not approve of how my mother raised me,” she sings tartly, “But I think I do.”

Tonight, Mitski’s stylised performance ranges far and deep into her back catalogue, as though she were still saying goodbye. A paper aeroplane stands in for the real thing on Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart, a deep cut from 2013. Even though her indie rock mid-period allowed Mitski to beat American boy suburbanites at their own genre, there is, perhaps, a touch too much of it tonight. It’s a boon for longtime fans: what devotee would not want to hear 2014’s Drunk Walk Home, the first time Mitski sang “fuck you and your money?”

But it leaves less room for her other killer moves, like the more hypnotic Laurel Hell tracks where Mitski turns feral and menacing, inviting trouble in. This is an artist whose stylistic voice only grows stronger with every record.

A white door stands at the back of the stage, teasing some of those darker themes from Laurel Hell. But that door is never opened; Mitski merely raps on it with her knuckles on one song, the bleak knockabout pop of Should’ve Been Me.

That door may yet give in time; Mitski is not retiring. Having supported Lorde on tour in 2017, she is set to perplex more stadiums with Harry Styles later this year. “Until next time,” she specifies, in parting.