Mitski’s third album and first release with Double Double Whammy, aligns with the quality of many of the label’s releases—strong melodies and honest, biting lyrics—but it also feels like somewhat of a departure from any familiar ground. Falling somewhere amid folk, pop, and breezy electric guitar rock, Bury Me at Makeout Creek doesn’t make concessions to any one genre. In fact, it doesn’t really make concessions to anyone or anything, and its utter repulsion of convention is what makes it so appealing. What we expect from a folk singer-songwriter, or an artist on DDW, or a music composition major, is none of what we get from Mitski; what we get instead is a sublime mesh of these elements and more that’s harrowing in its strength.
Coming from a woman in her early twenties and touching on deeply internal themes of heartbreak, fear, and desire, it’s so tempting to call Bury Me at Makeout Creek a classic bildungsroman, but something about that description belies the record’s maturity—though the record deals with the harsh feelings that recur in adolescence and early adulthood, it revels in these feelings. It’s not an attempt at driving them away, managing them, or growing up. Instead, it is a complete embrace. What surfaces through Mitski’s controlled articulation of delicate themes is an expression of self-awareness and appreciation that endows the act of being vulnerable with renewed power.
Despite having shifted her arrangement away from the acoustic pianos and orchestral instrumentation of her previous records and toward a more roguish rock sound, Mitski preserves the lushness of instrumentation on Bury Me and ultimately expands it. She has found the means to build on her background and create massive, blossoming arrangements, each part carefully constructed—as in “Townie,” which involves a raucous instrumental section with little knots of distorted sound that rub up against the instrumentation at just the right moments. Though the melodies alone are compelling and memorable, it’s impossible to leave the record with only these in mind; bits of the instrumentation are bound to cling as well.
Yet the album starts off pared back. The first sound we hear is a single low note on the acoustic guitar, and then it’s Mitski’s voice—the lilting, clear apparition that harbors enough power to hold us at full attention, even at its most hushed. It registers as familiar, maybe somewhere between the dulcet folk tones of Sibylle Baier and the vigorous range of Angel Olsen, but comparisons do little to elucidate the sound of it, the way it scales the spectrum from hushed lullaby to full-on belting, from sweetness to aggression. The first transformation occurs when the steady beat of the percussion crashes in and she sings, “You’re the breeze in my Austin nights.” Suddenly the vocals are unfastened and we hear them in their full power.
Even when Mitski errs on the side of aggression, it’s the total antithesis of the kind of aggression that we’ve doubtlessly gotten accustomed to—this is not an attempt at performing masculinity or toughness. That would be too comfortable. Rather, the intensity that Mitski cultivates is through her own admittance and embrace of her difference, which lies in her classical training; she’s able to exercise precise control over her volume and intonation in such a way as to make it sound delicate. In occupying a space between strength and fragility, her voice becomes a channel for the powerful, caustic articulation of delicate feelings. On “I Don’t Smoke” she finds her way to this space, with the harsh sounds of crunchy guitars in overdrive against her long-held notes and slight vibrato. In a striking moment she sings “If your hands need to break more than trinkets in your room / you can lean on my arm as you break my heart” with a quelled fervency, so that her words dangle between elegy and anthem. Combined with the controlled timbre of her vocals, the dark pull of this sole melodic line that’s repeated in variations makes the song almost fearful; Mitski is singing about allowing herself to be broken, while her crushing lines possess their own ability to break us.
Part of the immense power that Mitski culls lies in her very articulation in the lyrics of feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness. There’s feeling in the form of the climactic utterance of “Fuck you and your money!” on “Drunk Walk Home” that articulates a hostile, unrestrained fury over a thick procession of drums, followed by the shattering screams of what registers as the hybrid sound of guitar and woman. But right after this comes a quavering expression of exposed, selfless compassion over the driving bass line and synth organs in “I Will”: in softened tones she sings, “While you sleep, I’ll be scared / so by the time you wake I’ll be brave.” Meanwhile, there’s no trace of conceit, no pretension or ironic self-deprecation to be found in any of this—rather, her words are brought forth in total sincerity, from the site of the feeling itself.
In large part, the energy on the album is oriented at the beginning, when the hazy, metallic guitar lines flare out loudest. It’s top-heavy in this sense, with the initial driving pop songs availing themselves to our immediate attention and the later, slower tunes assuming their position on the back burner. On the other hand, so many of the album’s tracks build from relative quietude to a grand climax, and allowing the structure of the record to do the opposite creates a thoughtful, needed balance.
The final track burrows into a place of stability and contentment that feels appropriate after all of the preceding turbulence, as Mitski reflects on the emotional disaster but insists softly now over only an acoustic guitar, “I am relieved that I’d left my room tidy / Goodbye.” It’s a well-placed reminder that the aftermath to the most violent of feelings can be resoundingly quiet. Mitski doesn’t assign a value to this revelation. She just hands it to us and lets it do what it will, fester or bloom. This is what’s ultimately so cunning and beautiful about Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Mitski’s tremendous expression of vulnerability is all her own, and how we relate to it depends on who we are—no concessions made.