MITSKI RETURNS: Working for the Knife

In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Mitski declared that she was waiting for her Anne Hathaway moment – the moment when everybody would “just decide to hate” her for no particular reason due to her rising popularity. Her critically acclaimed fifth album, Be The Cowboy (2018) was intended at the time as an act of self-sabotage. “Well, before this goes to shit and you stop liking me, I’m going to do something that I know you won’t like, so that I’m the one who’s rejecting you,” Mitski stated when discussing her approach to the record. 

But evidently, this self-sabotage didn’t work. Following on from the critically acclaimed Puberty 2 (2016), Be The Cowboy was heralded as Mitski’s “greatest [album] to date” and as Pitchfork’s number 1 album of 2018. Additionally, Mitski herself was branded an emerging “visionary songwriter” by Rolling Stone, and “the most advanced American songwriter that I know” by rock legend and Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop

Despite the resounding success of Be The Cowboy, in light of Mitski’s comments regarding the anxieties attached to growing fame, it was unsurprising that Mitski would take time away from the public eye, something she initially announced in June 2019. Even, ‘Geyser’, the first track of Be The Cowboy, explores the personal sacrifices musicians must make for the sake of their career, opening an album which explores themes of incongruity and loneliness  of all forms. 

Mitski’s newest track, ‘Working for the Knife’, is an almost ironic comeback after two years of public silence. It isn’t a celebration of a renewed love of her career, nor does it fit the shock-factor mould often expected from “comeback music.” This single is a slow-burning, poignant critique of corporate music industry culture; Mitski’s confession that, despite her hiatus, she is still plagued by the conflict arising from creating art in a modern, capitalist society. 

The central metaphor of “the knife” serves to represent the objects of Mitski’s despair – the entrapment of the music industry, the hungry expectations of fans and critics alike, and her own high standards. It’s a track which dares its audience to understand what it can feel like to be repeatedly placed upon a pedestal you’ve tried desperately to avoid. In an official press release, Mitski said the track was about “being confronted with a world that doesn’t seem to recognize your humanity, and seeing no way out of it.”  

‘Working for the Knife’ fits well within Mitski’s (admittedly far-reaching and explorative) sound. It’s underscored by a sinister industrial synth, and the moments of fuzzy electric guitars are reminiscent of the distortion of Mitski’s second studio album, Puberty 2. Mitski’s vocals are as magnetic as ever, and she holds her own against the controlled chaos of the instrumental which seems to ebb and flow. The syncopation of the percussion and a neat guitar riff help transform a song about, in many senses, accepting hopelessness, into a track brimming with life. 

The song is one of the shortest to join Mitski’s discography, at only just over two and a half minutes. It doesn’t have a chorus. Rather, each of the five verses progress through Mitski’s realisation that she is not only working and living for “the knife,” but ultimately dying for it. The last line has Mitski singing that, “I start the day lying and end with the truth / That I’m dying for the knife.” The rest of the lyrics before this, are just as honest. “I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me,” she sings of her time away from the spotlight. 

With the release of ‘Working for the Knife’ came an announcement of Mitski’s 2022 United States and EU/UK tour. The almost immediate selling out of tickets demonstrates that her hiatus only served to fuel the desperation of fans for new music. It’s unsurprising, as Mitski’s music is nothing if not relatable. Her lyricism is captivating – capable of describing entire relationships, whole identities, and making political statements that Mitski herself doesn’t even consider as part of her inspiration or process. Throughout her career, Mitski has become an idea that thousands have fallen in love with, an enigma whom many project their desires and own identities onto. But Mitski is an individual, a person who’s been constant in her assertion that she is not the figurehead she’s often described as. 

As we all rejoice at the release of ‘Working for the Knife’ and bask in the relief and excitement over Mitski’s return, perhaps we should make sure to really listen to the stories she shares with us, and the messages she sends out through her music.

Zoe Biggs
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