In June 2019, the Japanese-American songwriter Mitski announced a gig in New York, which was, she said, to be her last show “indefinitely”. She wasn’t quitting music for good, she clarified, but she wanted time to set up roots, after touring incessantly for more than five years. “I haven’t had a place to live during this time,” she wrote. “I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game, in the constant churn. I don’t want to make art like that.”
On “Working For the Knife”, a single released on Tuesday that we can assume to be the launch of a new, fifth, album project, it’s clear that the time Mitski has had away from music hasn’t helped her overcome her fears. The song is a powerful, taut ballad that examines how it feels to live in a world that sucks the humanity out of you at every turn. In her rich, mesmerising tenor, she sings about the pressures of playing “the game”, working not for herself but for “the knife”, and how it wears you down.
The song runs at just two and a half minutes, and is encased in a five-minute long video, directed by Zia Anger and filmed at the concrete-heavy arts centre the Egg in Albany, New York. In it, Mitski is a dancer, arriving at the venue, preparing backstage, and then going onstage, bereft of vitality. “I cry at the start of every movie/I guess because I wish I was making things too,” she sings over woozy synths. Her eyes are looking off into the distance, her head is elsewhere – and the glimmer of hope that appears in the form of a sweet piano lead-in is quickly overcome by a wall of fuzzed-up guitars.
Mitski is a tantalising performer – for previous live shows, she danced atop a table, writhing and stretching like a gymnast, while singing. Here, she licks a bannister and acts the clown with faux grimaces that quickly turn into frowns. But this playfulness doesn’t belie the song’s weight. It’s heart-wrenching to hear Mitski, one of her generation’s most critically lauded songwriters, sing “Nobody cared for the stories I had”, whether she is playing a part or not.
“Working for the knife” becomes “living for the knife”, and then “dying for the knife”, and by the end, Mitski, now gloved, her hair slicked back, is just a body lying on the floor of a stage. The horns play their bit, and she’s left panting.