Arts

Review & Retrospective: Mitski Emerges from Hiatus with Return to Musical Roots in “Working for the Knife”

COURTESY OF MARIKA SAITO

On October 5, singer-songwriter Mitski released the single “Working for the Knife,” a preview of her sixth studio album. The song marks her reemergence after a two-year long hiatus—in 2019, she ceased live performances and deleted all of her social media. Last Monday, her online accounts were suddenly reactivated. Compounded by the announcement of a 2022 spring tour and album release, legions of fans were sent into a frenzy. Known for her unique sounds—a jumbled mix of folk, electronica, indie, and rock—Mitski’s soft voice strikes a melancholy balance with her philosophical lyrics. Guttural and raw, “Working for the Knife” is emblematic of this confluence of genres. While the song’s musical style is reminiscent of Mitski’s earlier work, it starkly contrasts with the coming-of-age narrative the song’s lyrics tell. 

At its core, “Working for the Knife” symbolizes Mitski’s return to her musical roots. The melody, which revolves around an eerie, synth-heavy instrumental with a subtle beat, is emblematic of her 2012 album, “Lush,” characterized by a more primal and unrefined style. Sonically, the song is more unprocessed compared to her other work—composed of five verses and lacking a chorus or bridge, Mitski’s singing sounds more genuine and unrestrained. This callback to her earlier music may allude to her motivations to go on hiatus. In a since-deleted tweet in 2019, she wrote, “I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self worth/identity will start depending on staying in the game… I don’t want to make art like that.” By imbuing elements of her early work into her new music, “Working for the Knife” reveals that, as desired, Mitski has successfully preserved her identity and originality as an artist. 

These are not the only references Mitski makes to her prior work—the song’s accompanying music video has plenty more. Most frequently referenced is her previous album, “Be the Cowboy,” arguably Mitski’s most popular release before her hiatus. As if to pick up right where she left off, Mitski dons a cowboy hat and silky blue jumpsuit, standing outside an empty theater. She also alludes to the pressures of her last tour—in the middle of the video, a spotlight appears, relentlessly pursuing her as she approaches the stage. Once she reaches it, she passes a hand over her face, a forced, jagged smile suddenly shifting into a frown. This facade falls during the last two minutes of the music video. As the song ends, Mitski dances alone, throwing herself against the stage and closing with a final euphoric grin. It makes the viewers uncomfortable—as it is aimed to. All of the aforementioned scenes parallel the stresses that came with Mitski’s mounting fame before her hiatus—and explains why she embarked on one in the first place. She was emotionally exhausted, she claimed, and, having been on tour for five years, a hiatus would give her the opportunity to rediscover her passion for music.

And rediscover she did. The lyricism in “Working for the Knife” is quintessentially Mitski––subtle yet decisive, metaphorical yet direct. While the release is supposed to signify a fresh start, the song primarily reflects the evolution of her career. “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,” she said of the song in a recent press release. As she reaches adulthood, this disenchantment serves as Mitski’s coming-of-age narrative. Most directly, though, the song has undertones that reflect on capitalist ideals present in the music industry and the world itself, accomplished through the metaphor of the knife. Previously mentioned in songs such as “Blue Light,” the knife represents a labor-conductive society in which raw, unbridled passion is stifled by the need to produce. “I guess [it’s] ‘cause I wish I was making things, too,” she sings. “But I’m working for the knife.” Yet the song celebrates her return to the industry as much as she criticizes it. Although having embarked on a hiatus for her own health, Mitski has always known she would return to music. With the advent of a new album and a 2022 tour, this fact becomes undeniable: Mitski is back and better than ever. “I start the day lying and end with the truth,” she finishes, “I’m dying for the knife.”