Tickets to her shows sell out in hours, sometimes minutes. I know multiple people with tattoos of her lyrics. I might be living in a music critic’s bubble, but I’d say most people who keep up with contemporary indie and rock music know who Mitski is. She’s one of the most creative and singular artists of her generation, and to her fans, she is God, the sun, and Kacey Musgraves.
Ten months after the record was released, we’re reaching the end of Mitski’s massive Be The Cowboy tour. Be The Cowboy was widely recognized as one of the most impressive releases of 2018 (it made our list of them), and the singer-songwriter has toured North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia pretty much nonstop in support of the record. Hours before her first-ever taping for PBS’ Austin City Limits broadcast, Mitski announced that she’d be playing her last gig “indefinitely” in New York City in September, and is planning a much-needed break following that show.
But before the break comes the tail end of the rush. Although Mitski had visited Austin earlier on the Be The Cowboy tour, her Austin City Limits show on Tuesday night was unlike any other on this tour. The fact that she was performing on a television soundstage changed her setup dramatically — the usual utilitarian stage design and props were displaced for a backdrop of the twinkling Austin skyline, and cameras lined the area where a barricade would be at any normal show. In her regular tour shows, Mitski is often lit in moody blues and reds, but Tuesday night she was bright as daylight.
Mitski is an incredibly physical performer. For her live shows, she augments the interiority of Be The Cowboy‘s subject matter by taking all its mental pacing, uncertainty, and writhing and translating it to dance. She uses her props to incredible effect — never before has a white wooden chair been sat on so dramatically, and in such a variety of different poses. In one of her typical shows, obscured by the dark, she dares the audience to retreat back into their own heads for a set, watch the whole thing play out like a dreamscape swimming behind their eyelids.
Shot in bright relief at Austin City Limits, Mitski pulled the curtain back. The full detail of her precise, evocative choreography and physical performance came to life with the lights turned up. Even if you’d seen Mitski on tour before, her Austin City Limits performance let you view her in breathtaking close-up. During the passionate, roaring “I Will,” there was a moment of blink-and-you-miss-it brilliance toward the end of the song, as Mitski considered jumping up on that prop table. Her eyes were fearful for only a split second before she stepped on anyway, repeating “and I will be brave” and standing over the audience confidently and knowing she’d conquered us.
The sensuality of Mitski’s show also had a different effect on this night. Despite the dozen men behind cameras standing front row with lenses trained on every part of her body, Mitski remained in complete control. The chair and table onstage might have looked like a desk in a bedroom, but it’s impossible to be a voyeur watching Mitski perform. Toward the beginning of the show, the singer cracked a joke about all the cameras covering her from every angle. “Good thing I’m comfortable in my body,” Mitski said, without a hint of irony in her voice.
She performed a full hour and a half, way more material than she’d need for a chopped-and-spliced 40 minutes of television, but nobody in the audience could complain. Her setlist spanned her entire discography, from the disco peaks of “Nobody” to every moody deep cut off Bury Me At Makeout Creek. Mitski even performed one song off her debut record Lush — the playful, cabaret-slinky “Liquid Smooth.” Standing in front of her overturned prop table, Mitski touched her face, gestured her arms out, and winked at the cameras filming her golden moment: “I’m at my highest peak, I’m ripe / About to fall, capture me / Or at least take my picture.”
Her performance at Austin City Limits is that picture. The brilliance of Be The Cowboy and Mitski’s own incredible talent brought her to the highest peak she’s achieved in her career so far. Mitski’s announcement of her looming break didn’t dampen the night’s spirit — if anything, the urgency only made her shine brighter. She told the audience she’d only filmed a few of these “fancy TV things” before, but her expressive choreography and god-tier stage presence proved that she has outgrown the midsize clubs she’s playing on the Be The Cowboy tour. Mitski the rock star is taking a break for a while, but she’s ready to conquer her next stage, whatever that might look like.
If the interiority of Be The Cowboy captured the twisting thoughts and feelings of Mitski’s mind and turned them to poetry, the Austin City Limits show did the same with her image. The episode will air as part of Austin City Limits‘ 45th season, likely sometime this fall, and likely after Mitski’s last performance in New York. The episode, then, is left as a relic of this thrilling moment in musical history. This is Mitski, the larger-than-life figure, generation-defining rock star, inspiration for my friends’ tattoos, and Twitter’s favorite “Libra queen.” She’s at her highest peak — capture her, or at least take her picture.