Mitski, the best tortured millennial artist on the market, has a history of coming to listeners when they need her the most. “Nobody” surged in popularity during quarantine, when people resonated more than ever with lines like, “My God, I’m so lonely / so I open the window / to hear sounds of people.”
Now, she’s back after a two-year musical hiatus (excluding features on songs like “Cop Car”) with the new single “Working for the Knife.” Her team announced new tour dates following her “last show indefinitely” in 2019, after which she took a break from social media and traveling, saying, “It’s time to be human again. And have a place to live.” As the world enters an odd transition between mass isolation and an irrevocably altered “post” pandemic life, listeners can once again resonate with Mitski’s exploration of growing pains, guided by her characteristically raw lyrics and vocals.
What’s the Song About?
Listening to Mitski’s music is like poking a bruise for fun. You know it’s going to hurt, you want it to hurt and still, somehow, you’re always a bit surprised by how much it does. In her new synth-heavy single, “Working for the Knife,” Mitksi pulls no lyrical punches. She hits right away with the line, “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ’cause I wish I was making things, too / But I’m working for the knife.”
“The knife” in the song evokes all the intangible but pressing burdens of 21st century life, including capitalism, mental illness, aging and more. It makes sense for Mitski’s first post-hiatus song to tackle her complex relationship with her art, which has become more and more complicated as she continues her rise to stardom. The knife acts as a metaphor for the music industry, with all its demands for production and profit, held to her throat. Despite her success, Mitski has avoided the label of “celebrity” and addressed issues that come with leaving an underground scene.
In a 2017 interview with Stereogum, she said, “I think people don’t realize how little of being an artist is making art. 80 to 85% I’d say has nothing to do with music. I think what has been a struggle for me is that I keep having to do all the other stuff to promote my music, to travel and play shows, all the stuff that has nothing to do with art is the stuff that gets in the way of my art.”
Four years later, Mitski is still talking about wanting to “make things, too.” It would be easy to point at her exceptional body of work and assume Mitski must have transcended these worries, but she consistently asserts that fame does not dilute these artistic concerns. It is both comforting and distressing to know that a popular professional musician experiences the same burnout and creative constraint as someone working a nine-to-five.
“Working for the Knife” tackles the eternal, oxymoronic struggle between art and capitalism, as well as the fight to keep creative integrity alive when industry supersedes artistry. While it seems as though Mitski has accepted her celebrity status more, she is no less critical of its pressures and unrealistic demands. In her verified Genius commentary on the single, Mitski writes, “It’s about going from being a kid with a dream, to a grown up with a job, and feeling that somewhere along the way you got left behind. It’s being confronted with a world that doesn’t seem to recognize your humanity, and seeing no way out of it.”
Fans, especially those who have grown with Mitski, can relate to her disillusionment over the years. Listeners can trace these concerns throughout Mitski’s body of work, and her oeuvre acts as a kind of sonic Künstlerroman, or narrative concerned with the maturation of the artist, a subgenre of the coming of age tale. In this single, Mitski sings, “I used to think I’d be done by twenty / Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at thirty, I’ll see a way to change / That I’m living for the knife.”
Fans will find it easy to pick out the raw emotionality and expressive vocals that put Mitski on the map (Mitski could sing coffee orders and make it sound like a modern lamentation). However, one Genius answer points out the song’s more traditional and formulaic structure in comparison to the songs on her 2018 studio album, “Be The Cowboy.”
They discuss how “Working for the Knife” consists of five verses with little variation in melody and instrumentation. In contrast, songs like “Geyser” build in tension until erupting in a great, climactic burst of emotion. They suggest this choice “could represent the monotony and formulaic approach of a capitalist society; there is no relief or catharsis.” Despite the picked-up tempo and relatively catchy melody, the song retains the energy of a ballad. It ends on a less-than-hopeful note, declaring, “I start the day lying and end with the truth / That I’m dying for the knife.”
Misery Loves Company
While lines like “I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right, but I just chose wrong” hardly bespeak optimism, there is still comfort to be found in Mitski’s newest song. As an artist, she has never been overly optimistic. In fact, the Genius description reads, “‘Working for the Knife’ sees Mitski singing with her characteristically expressive voice about characteristically cynical subjects.” Yet, even as a cynic, Mitski provides refuge for those looking for catharsis and remains understanding of their pain. Some researchers say listening to sad music can make people happier. At the end of the day, Mitski fans love her music for its refreshing — and sometimes unrelenting — honesty.
Unlike the Avatar, when the world needed her most, Mitski did not vanish — at least, not for too long. She’s right here, next to us. Although she’ll be the first to tell you how much the world can wound, even in a relatively short lifespan, she also comforts with her music. She gives shape, form and sound to the intangible hurts, fears and desires that define the postmodern, Digital Age. Although Mitski’s music will cut you to the quick, it can also sew you back together again.