Beaver

Mitski Circles Through Reality on “Working for the Knife”

By Sharon Zheng

Mitski follows up the success of her 2018 tour de force, Be the Cowboy, with her comeback single “Working for the Knife”. Contrasted by the majestically forceful, synth-led instrumentation, Mitski’s voice sails with repose as she sings about the dehumanisation faced in growing up and working in a sea of capitalism. She defies the conventions of song structure by omitting a chorus for five verses in sequence. Mitski begins each verse with a fresh scenario, only to end cynically with the “knife” motif – one that symbolises the oppressive strings of societal expectations. Such purposeful monotony reflects the cyclical nature of work and documents a series of daily struggles in Mitski’s life. With this, we embark on an existential journey with Mitski, coasting through river rapids of nuanced emotions and cascading instrumental riffs. 

Grandiose yet understated, the sonic landscape of “Working for the Knife” mirrors the cognitive dissonance of chasing your dreams, particularly in the limelight, and understanding the brutality that coexists with it. The juxtaposition between high/low, right/wrong, start/end, and lies/truth in the lyrics further reinforce this sentiment. Mitski hypnotically sings “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things too” and “I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me” like clockwork, as if normalising these feelings. It’s a cry of frustration disguised as a near lullaby. An avalanche of inner turmoil dressed in a calm exterior. A hard-hitting statement veiled by musical beauty.

Characteristically, Mitski embraces postmodernism in her music video to add a prolific, visual layer to her art. The video starts and finishes with shaky camera movements, creating a turbulent atmosphere embellished with psychedelism, much in line with the song’s message. She moves abstractly around the space and in the song’s finale, the viewer receives a powerful catharsis (one that is notably absent in the music itself) as Mitski dances wildly and breathes heavily onstage, soundtracked by applause in an empty room.

“Working for the Knife” diverts from the vulnerability of Be the Cowboy in projecting a more brutally honest and piercing narrative while maintaining Mitski’s signature, campy style. The lyrics are so profuse in content yet simple in language. The music is so precise and clean in melody, yet intricate and multidimensional in arrangement. Cinematic and quietly complex, “Working for the Knife” is the perfect sequel to Be the Cowboy and further cements Mitski’s name in the pantheon of the indie rock music scene.

Hi, I’m Sharon! Currently, I’m in my third year of studying Management at LSE. I write about music, film, and television shows for The Beaver. One of my core interests is songwriting and in particular, I love exploring the poetry and storytelling behind lyrics. I am an aficionado for nostalgic, melancholic content, so I am always open to recommendations of emotional, soul-stirring material. Feel free to reach me at s.zheng22@lse.ac.uk or sharonxzheng on Instagram!

Sharon Zheng

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