One of the many relatable details about Mitski—the Japanese-American singer-songwriter born Mitski Miyawaki, but known among her burgeoning fan base simply by her first name—is her relatively unhindered Twitter presence. Though most 27-year-olds don’t boast Mitski’s 80,000-plus followers, her dispatches retain the humor of any young person caught in the stupefied daze of social-media addiction. And like her music, Mitski’s tweets reveal a casual and disarming vulnerability: “if u have a presentation or meeting or just have to go show ur face in public when u feel like utter unpresentable garbage I suggest u go see my tiny desk video,” she writes in one, “where I showed up to NPR to be documented forever looking like a big pulsing void and radiating pain and I still did it.”
That “Tiny Desk” video is worth watching. Perhaps it’s her expression—vacant and impatient—or the way her hair is thrown over her shoulder and eye, or how she rocks her body away from the mic to heft her electric guitar to her face and wail into its strings, but she is pulsing. And when she looks directly into the camera during her final song and sings, “And you’d say you love me and look in my eyes / But I know, through mine, you’re looking in yours,” the source of the pain is irrelevant—the performance does, as her tweet suggests, radiate.
“Geyser,” the opening track on Mitski’s latest album, Be the Cowboy, is irradiated with a similar sense of pain, though this time it builds to an eruption, a delirious upsurge that reaches its crescendo in a crashing drumbeat. No longer the quiet sense of shock, but perhaps the next stage of grief: bright, sparkling anger. “I’m attracted to violence, but not even violence towards anything or anyone,” she told an interviewer. “That’s the thing that’s most complicated. It’s just this scream, and I don’t know what the scream is about—I don’t know what it’s at, I don’t know what it’s for, but it’s there, and I guess I’m just trying to express it in the best way possible.”
Ever since college, rendering acute pain into sound has been Mitski’s specialty. Her first two albums, Lush (2012) and Retired From Sad, New Career in Business (2013), were her junior- and senior-year projects at Purchase College. Using classmates to fill out her band—at one point, she was backed by a 60-person student orchestra—Mitski produced a unique sound: bighearted indie rock that, while bristling as though ready to attack, proved itself able to jump nimbly from rambling, Fiona Apple–style piano confessionals (“Bag of Bones”) to cheery, tongue-in-cheek pop (“Strawberry Blond”).
Both albums were critically praised, and since then Mitski has released a new one every two years. Life in a hollowed-out middle class is the crucial context to her lyrics, which give the economic anxiety and debilitating debt that millennials are saddled with their emotional due. “It’s a windy afternoon / Can’t afford to buy my food / Or the drive I need to go / Further than they said I’d go,” she sings in “Jobless Monday,” a track from her 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek. In “Class of 2013,” she sings about one humbling millennial hallmark: moving back home. Hoping for mercy, she asks the universe—and her mom—for a break: “Mom, I’m tired / Can I sleep in your house tonight? / …I’ll leave once I figure out / How to pay for my own life too.”