On 43rd street near Times Square stands a brick building, conspicuously shorter than its Midtown neighbors. It is lined with double-doors at street level and adorned with a limestone engraving reading “THE TOWN HALL,” and underneath, in slightly smaller letters, “YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE”. I investigatively read it out loud to my friend as we approached the building. It is about 8pm, and we were on our way to see Mitski.
Mitski, 33-year-old Mitski Miyawaki’s stage mononym, is an American singer-songwriter. With 15.5 million monthly Spotify listeners, her music grazes the borders between indie, alternative, pop, rock, and folk, and is characterized by poetic, direct yet surreal lyrics. On September 15th, she released her seventh studio album, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We”. Leaning more into acoustic, folky inspirations, it peaked at 12 on the US Billboard 200.
Three weeks earlier, I had received a mysterious email: “JUST ANNOUNCED,” the headline read, followed by “Amateur Mistake: A night of intimate, acoustic performance from Mitski previewing her new album ‘The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We.’” Curiously, the email did not contain a “Buy Tickets” link. Instead, there was an option to “register for the chance to purchase tickets,” which entered fans into a lottery. Ticket prices varied from $60-100 after fees. The message stipulated that these lottery tickets could only be resold at face value – a welcome policy in the age of exorbitant resale prices for high-profile and smaller-scale shows alike, and a gesture I took as a reflection of Mitski’s values as an artist that prioritizes listeners over profit.
So, as we entered The Town Hall and were surrounded by fellow lottery-winners, there was a feeling that we were about to witness something special, just for us. The crowd was varied: 30-something couples in practical shoes loitered in the entryway next to college students who probably frequent their local tattoo and piercing parlor. I recognized a few other Barnard students while inspecting the merch stand. The performance space itself was reminiscent of a Broadway venue with red velvet seats, pleated stage curtains, and detailed faux-marble molding. Propped on the stage behind the mic was a double bass and an acoustic guitar, answering our question as to what an “intimate, acoustic performance” actually meant.
When Mitski and her two accompanists finally walked out on stage, the crowd clapped and cheered with all the same intensity as a general admission crowd at Webster Hall. Smiling, she wore an understated knee-length, partly sheer black-and-sheer patterned dress and a thin black belt, matching the color scheme of the album art. Facing the now-quiet crowd head-on, she swayed slightly to the strumming of her guitarist and began singing the album’s first track “Bug Like an Angel,” the bare acoustic production accentuating her clear, mezzo-sporano voice.
As advertised, she performed “The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We” in order and in its entirety, stopping only once to thank the crowd for their support and to reminisce on her ten-year career and emotional connection to New York City. On stage, Mitski comes off as entirely down-to-earth, as if she is singing right to you. Her poetic, enigmatic lyrics and often unorthodox song structure augment this gut feeling that she is telling you something deeply important. The understated acoustic arrangement leant a cohesiveness to the 32-minute performance, despite varying from quaint guitar strumming to standout arrangement of “Star,” which she sang over just a loud double bass drone.
Her arresting performance of the album’s eleventh and final track “I Love Me After You,” brought about a standing ovation. To the cheering crowd, she annouced she’d be playing a few older songs and encouraged us to sing along. Selections varied from different points in her career, including “Francis Forever,” “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” and “Love Me More”. After another feigned exit, she returned on stage, this time baring an acoustic guitar on her own. She announced that, since it was New York and we’d been such a good crowd, she had one more song for us: a cover of American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger’s “Coyote, My Little Brother”.
Present in the title itself, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” is interested in questions of nature and animality as they relate to relationships and the self, colored with Americana motifs. “Coyote, My Little Brother” was a clear thematic return. The haunting melody, consisting of three notes, echoes the call of the coyote and Mitski’s sobering interpretation froze time at the venue. It almost felt wrong to clap and cheer when she bowed and walked off the stage.
Mitski isn’t a performer that leaves you with ringing ears and a high as you exit the venue. If anything, its the opposite; I left embodied, with this feeling of clarity. “YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE,” read the building again. I don’t know why Mitski and her team chose The Town Hall, but that engraving felt fitting. Singing of both experience and experimental narrative, she has a way of unearthing your most forgotten or repressed emotional truths. Whether or not that made me free, I have yet to decide.
Mitski will embark on a North American tour with a full band next year, including seven shows in New York City.