To put Mitski into words is to befriend frustration. Despite typifying the “sad girl” genre, her music ventures beyond simple dolor. Her lyrics are jewels of precision and candor, rotating emotions under a glass eye and catching their nuances under the light. A line of Doc Martens snaked around the Fox Theater in Oakland on March 4, awaiting the arrival of their elusive patron saint.
Opener CHAI — a four-piece Japanese band clad in frothy tulle dresses — electrified the venue. Lime-green lights raked the stage as the group charmed in synchronized choreography, delivering a buoyant if slightly prolix set. CHAI flounced offstage, and anticipation kindled as members of the crew began to clear the stage, redressing it for a wholly different style of performance.
Emerging from a fog, Mitski took the stage to the pulsing synths of “Love Me More.” With her band forming a half-moon ring behind her, she debuted in a flowing white dress, a marble statue in stillness and vengeful specter in motion. Her stance was planted, gaze pinned above the audience: She was prepared for a reckoning.
Intimacy is a fraught thing at a Mitski concert. Through a lyrical surge of intimacy and intrusive thoughts, the singer maintained her distance onstage. Her stage presence is one of voracious performance — deeply in character, pruned of dead time and unruffled by the crowd. While listeners bounced on the balls of their platform boots, Mitski became a twisted, languid mess of bent wrists and an arched back, her motions desperate yet calculated and entirely captivating.
“Should’ve Been Me,” another upbeat song from Laurel Hell, kept spirits high. On a first listen, these kinds of toe-tapping tracks admittedly wedge a commercial-friendly generality onto the album. In performance, however, their lively rhythms and catchy melodies are invigorating, if a bit glossy.
After “Stay Soft,” however, the concert found its bite, and the opening bars of “Townie” lacerated the air. Mitski pressed through the chorus in white-knuckled defiance, “And I want a love that falls as fast/ As a body from the balcony.” With her heavy strides across the stage, Mistki’s frenetic performance felt like a scene from Edith Templeton’s short story “The Darts of Cupid,” where the Major tells Eve, “You are so exquisitely made,” and then, “I could break every bone in your body.” Onstage, Mitski was hypnotic, a cathartic vision of a love that’s both cradle and grave.
On her records, Mistki’s voice warbles with lucid vibrato, but the clarity in her vocals grew taut and coiled in “Your Best American Girl.” The sound rang out, pressed and cut like glass. Mitski beamed like a painted window, rays of light reflecting off of her skin as if searing it. The song crests in a wrought spectacle, and when Mitski reached the final chorus, her stained-glass performance finally shattered in a frenetic, all-consuming downpour.
Other fan favorites took a playful turn. Her stage presence was opaque yet bewitching in the satirical “Me and My Husband;” the lumbering piano chords paralleling her movements. The eerie ostinato in “Heat Lightning” burned as Mitski dragged the microphone cord across her throat, resigned yet resplendent.
In “Nobody,” Mitski leaned into comic, sharp choreography, her voice ringing out above the onlookers singing along. The lights flashed in a watercolor frenzy, matching the claustrophobic yet ceaseless “Nobody” spilling from her throat by the end of the song.
The night ended with an encore performance of “Two Slow Dancers,” the closing track on Be the Cowboy. The song holds ephemerality in two shaking hands — one that wishes these moments could happen again, the other resigned to the fact that they can’t.
A sense of peace settled over the theater as Mitski glowed like ceramic. Her voice, soft and spent, glazed the night in bittersweet varnish. When the song ebbed and she finally addressed the true “last ones out,” it was a sweet, pithy farewell to send off an oceanic show — the kind of concert that cleaves its crowd and lets water rush into the chamber of one’s chest, at once flooded and full.