Song Analysis/Commentary of “I Don’t Smoke” by Mitski
Photo by Abbey Steinman
Track No. 5, “I Don’t Smoke,” off of Mitski’s 2014 album, “Bury Me At Makeout Creek” is the definition of a guilty pleasure song. It’s the song I blast on my speakers as I cruise the freeway at night with my windows down and my hair blowing furiously in the wind. It’s the song I can scream at the top of my lungs to. I could listen to it thirty times straight, no skips, and I still wouldn’t be able to get enough of it. It’s a song with simplistic lyrics that are full of angst, yet it still manages to make you feel empty at the same time. Despite the emotional outburst, “I Don’t Smoke” is also a full-blown heartbreak love song. It’s about craving and reminiscing about an old relationship that shouldn’t be missed in the first place.
Within the first three seconds of the song, the guitar is plugged into the amp, and the strings have their sound checked. Immediately, a distorted guitar, whose chords are devastated, hints at how torn Mitski is. The guitar plays the same heavy bar chord progression throughout the song, while Mitski’s powerful yet angelic voice contrasts it. The guitar blasting away displays Mitski’s fuming temper, while her voice shows how “fragile” she is.
Mitski tries to sing over the guitar throughout most of the song, although she fails to do so. Her delicate voice slips away and is overruled by the instruments. It feels as if she’s losing control. Yet, she still sings passionately in the hopes her past lover can hear her. She sings as if it’s a desperate call to reform something they once had. She’s hurt, and she wants them to know.
As for Mitski’s simplistic yet euphonious lyrics, it’s clear that this person is just as addictive as smoking. The correlation of both being addicting for Mitski speaks volumes. Mitski’s aware of how horrible smoking and this person is, yet there’s something so captivating about the two that keeps pulling her back for more. She craves them from time to time as she remembers the pleasure she once felt. It’s the type of pleasure where it’s wrong, but it feels so good.
After willingly giving in to her cravings, she inhales the ghastly toxin and becomes lost in her thoughts. Mitski openly admits how much she misses this person and begins to remember how their mouth “tasted true.” She falls down the dark hole of something that once was and tricks herself. A wave of nostalgia hits her like a semi-truck. She begins to remember who this person is and their actions, and what it put her through. Mitski then self reflects on her past relationship and acknowledges her self-growth. Although she doesn’t do it in a rewarding way… She admits that she’s willing to please this person the way they wish. By all means, she offers to be a living punching bag- or a trinket to satisfy their sadistic needs.
Lyrics like, “if you need to be mean/be mean to me,” and “you can lean on my arm/ as you break my heart,” are sung with such powerful vocals that you become lost within Mitski’s voice. You begin to empathize with her and stray away from the fact this person is downright awful. Mitski’s voice can hypnotize you while she admits things she’s not supposed to. (Mitski’s done it again!)
Reaching towards the bridge of the song, the tone shifts into a higher key. The straightforward distorted guitar chords that were consistently being played disappear, and a new chord progression takes over. At this moment, the song starts to build up to the climax, or so it seems…
When the last line of the bridge hits, “I’m stronger than you give me credit for,” it leaves goosebumps throughout your whole body. It feels as if we were the ones being yelled at for underestimating her as she’s trying to prove that she can withstand any sort of pain that comes her way. These lyrics felt rewarding until Mitski revealed being strong meant enduring the pain her ex-lover wishes to inflict.
The idea of Mitski being able to put an end to her submission was surreal. She hasn’t changed one bit despite how much she wants to. The guitar also reveals that as it goes back to its original chord progression. She will forever crave this person no matter how harsh they are; she’s still hopelessly in love with this person; she still believes she can recover the relationship once more if given a chance to do so.
Mitski still fawns over this so-called relationship, one that was practically based upon her ex-lover’s ego and abuse, as she’s willing to open Pandora’s box once she lights and inhales the mild, crisp smoke of her cigarette (or joint, whatever pleases you).
With that in mind, perhaps that’s why Mitski doesn’t smoke anymore or at least tries not to. She knows she’ll give in to these cravings and let these thoughts burst regardless of whether they’re healthy or not. Perhaps smoking from time to time can also ease the pain. In the end, the consequences remind her to move on from her thoughts. It’s not like she always wants to be reminded of her past lover who caused her to belittle herself. She wants to be reminded of what things were and see if she can go back and change them, even if she sounds ridiculous. And once she smokes, she’s reminded of the blissful memories.
While the song comes to its end, it’s nothing but breathtaking and jarring. We learn that Mitski knows her limits and isn’t scared to reveal how she has no boundaries. Mitski knows she can hold herself back from these emotions arising again, but admits it’s okay to give in at certain times. Yet by not smoking anymore, Mitski knows she can eventually get off the train of denial and only feel sorry for herself.
“I Don’t Smoke” holds far too much significance for it being as simplistic as it is. Mitski’s metaphor is downright clever. How else could you compare a destructive relationship that manages to keep reeling you back in for more? It’s none other than smoking.