Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

Mitski – Working for the Knife

Blurbing for the Jukebox.


Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: DIRGE SZN APPROACHING

Dorian Sinclair: “Working for the Knife” is classic Mitski, lyrically — she is able to cut right to the heart of a sentiment in a way that makes the title feel very apt, and I’ve always admired how concisely she does so. My favourite trick here, though, is purely instrumental. There’s a piano arpeggio 25 seconds in that feels bizarrely out of place, operating in a completely different tonality than everything around it. But harmonies shift through the song as the narrator’s perspective evolves, and when that same arpeggio returns just before the two-minute mark, it’s to a sonic world that’s able to accommodate it, though the soundscape is changed yet again by its presence.

Vikram Joseph: “I cry at the start of every movie,” is so unequivocally a deadpan, only-joking-but-no-really Mitski-ism that it’s hard to believe she hasn’t opened a song with it before. Appropriately for a song about the illusion of infinite choice in a stringently prescriptive society, “Working for the Knife” moves like a slow, muddy river — slithering inexorably towards a distant sea under the false conviction of free will, swampy multitudes beneath its surface. Mitski recognises her role as a cog in the wheels of an uncaring world, and in the next breath supposes that perhaps, next year, she might find a way to carve out her own destiny — because without that distant hope, the cogs would cease to function. It’s all pretty bleak, really, but if you want to lighten the mood you could pretend it’s a song by Karen and Olof Dreijer’s beleaguered roadie instead.

Alfred Soto: The Goth imperturbability of the opening synth riff evokes Sky Ferreira, but Mitski doesn’t create the impression she doesn’t control her effects. Each guitar strum and peel announces and adumbrates an unease that her lyrics skim over and her workaday voice understands; she’s a normal person getting by. And the tunelet’s not a second longer than necessary.

Tim de Reuse: Though the melody is unmistakably Mitskian, there’s no teenage angst or any of Be the Cowboy‘s Hollywood thrill; just the crush of age and expectations. She’s no stranger to melancholy, or frustration, or disillusionment, but this comeback feels qualitatively different, and not just because her subject matter has taken a turn for the abstract. The trouble, for me, is all in the instrumentation: damp and dreary, full of heavy pads and half-time funk guitar strumming, neither sparse enough to make her private realizations bite nor heavy enough to overwhelm you with the scale of her world-weariness.

Alex Clifton: The production on this song isn’t my favourite; mostly I wish there was less focus on the industrial instrumental and more of Mitski’s voice in the actual mix, because sometimes her words get enveloped in the sound. Having said that, it certainly captures a sense of listlessness and despair. Mitski’s talent is to take dark, heavy feelings and translate them into music accurately. It doesn’t always make for pretty (or repeatable) listening at times, but it’s nothing if not effective and affecting.

Nina Lea: As I type this review in my law school library, sneaking a brief respite from legal memos to write about music, the opening lines of “Working for the Knife” hit me especially hard: “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess cuz I wish I was making things too.” It’s an unusual sentiment from an artist who has released five studio albums in the past ten years. But Mitski always seems to expect the other shoe to drop, for the commercial world to suck her right back in. That tension propels this simmering track: the desperate, intrinsic urge to pursue a creative life rich with meaning, up against the pressures of capitalism that demand our bodies, our senses, our souls. By the time Mitski reaches the final verse, her lyrics suggest that those pressures are inescapable, a reality we’ll end up dying for, no matter how much we may have believed ourselves capable of breaking free in our youth. But although “Working for the Knife” has haunted me since I first heard it, the very fact of its existence also gives me hope. After all, isn’t this song itself an act of creation? Maybe we’re all dying for the knife, but we write our songs and our music reviews anyway. Maybe no one cares for the stories we have, but it means something to try and tell them all the same.

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