Mitski may have been on a semi-hiatus, but her presence was still strongly felt in the past year. “Nobody,” her disco-tinged single off the 2018 record Be The Cowboy, became an unexpected anthem for 2020: What better way to encapsulate the immense solitude of quarantine than a song that references being so isolated and feeling so lonely, you have to open the windows just to hear the sounds of people? Save your pity; Mitski just wanted human touch so she can feel alright.
We’re now at the (hopefully) tail-end of mass isolation, still processing that solitude and grief, rebuilding ourselves as we pick up the shattered pieces of what helped us feel whole in the before times. So it seems only fitting to allow ourselves to be ushered into the unknown by having Mitski once again voice our emotions for us. The musician marks her return with new single “Working For The Knife,” and with no album announcement yet, it’s a preview of what’s to come in her next era.
It’s often joked that Mitski has the capability of making fans shed tears on command with her music, both through her heavily emotional lyrics and her lushly orchestrated melodies. But in “Working For The Knife,” we’re introduced to a darker side to Mitski that’s not meant to set off waterworks. This Mitski doesn’t want you to weep; she wants you to listen.
Mitski often uses synths to heighten emotion in her music, but this time she goes full electro-industrial, while addressing her brief hiatus:
I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me / I start the day high and it ends so low / ’Cause I’m working for the knife / I used to think I’d be done by 20 / Now at 29 the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change / That I’m living for the knife.
Its words are simpler than many of her lyrical gut-punches from throughout the years, but tell so much. It’s a story about longing for success, but then realizing you might not even know what that looks like, anymore. As Mitski herself explains in the liner notes, “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.”
Mitski’s not trying to sugarcoat things, lyrically or melodically. While the Mitski on Be The Cowboy seemingly desired control and power, this one’s worn out just fighting for a chance to create art without having to meet people’s expectations. She’s dejected, yet strong. Taking on a more industrial sound feels apt; it’s not a celebratory tune like “Nobody,” nor is it a heartbreak anthem like many of her most popular tracks. Instead, this harsher musicality is used to convey the heaviness of her words.
Music videos don’t carry the same weight they used to, but Mitski’s a visual artist as well as a musical one. She began introducing experimental dance to her performances in 2018, and she uses those moments to convey her emotions in the “Working For The Knife” video. She plays up making viewers uncomfortable, as she licks the railing of a staircase, while also making facial gestures that feel reminiscent of a marionette; with one hand swipe over her face, she puts on a fake smile, ready to entertain. But in the next scene, Mitski acts out her death, pretending to slice her neck. Bathing in the shower of applause, she then erratically jumps around to the sound of her own thuds, finally collapsing.
Mitski’s still set on presenting herself as the cowboy (albeit a “goth cowboy” of sorts, this time) and it’s fitting imagery. Cowboys have seen it all. They’re admired for their grit; they’re intimidating and solitary. But there’s something solemn about being a lone ranger, traversing throughout the land without stability. It’s an apt metaphor for Mitski’s career, and she’s a step closer to revealing where the journey takes her next.