Album Review: Mitski—’Be The Cowboy’

Posted: by The Editor

At this point in her life, Mitski’s operating somewhere between elusive creative and selectively outspoken provocateur. She’s now five albums deep into a six-year career that, within the last two, has flung her from college rock queen to Lorde opener, and she’s (rightfully) become choosy about who she talks about it with. She’s only done a handful of interviews this cycle, and her formerly active Twitter personality has shrunk noticeably to just occasional quips and sly critiques of her coverage.

As a musician, Mitski’s appeal is how she sings about emotion. Particularly love, and specifically failed or flawed love. On her 2016 breakout Puberty 2 she sang about a series of insufficient men who she finds herself, or believes she’ll eventually find herself, involved with. Her characters were metaphorically referred to as concepts like “Happy” and “silence,” or less flatteringly, compared to “losing dogs” she continues to bet on. There was a sense of longing in her voice, but also a sense of exhaustion. And with it she was able to synthesize pessimism, wistfulness, and aromanticism into a shade of stylized, neo-noir indie rock that conceived tinglings from emotional emptiness. Fans felt it, and they praised her as a sort of pseudo-metaphysical figure, establishing her reputation as the modern goddess of sadness.

But according to a telling interview with Pitchfork titled “Don’t Cry For Mitski” that ran in June, the 27-year-old songwriter doesn’t want to hold that position. She said that most of the “love” songs on her then-upcoming album Be The Cowboy are about her infatuation with music, specifically her own career. It was a fascinating interview that revealed who many herald as a sentimental soothsayer—a master of describing, and thus presumably engaging, in human interaction—to actually be a misanthropic, societal outsider who daydreams of a lifelong relationship with songwriting, not another warm body. “Every time someone on social media is like, ‘I can’t wait to cry to your new album,’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll cry. I’m sorry,’” went one of the piece’s most remarkable quotes.  

That feature ran, perhaps intentionally, months before Be The Cowboy’s release date, and her dialogue from that story feels inextricable from the album itself. The record is full of tales about non-specific “baby’s” that she’s pushed away and/or rejected in favor of her own needs, and the conflict comes from her struggle to reckon with the inexplicable lust that lingers. You don’t have to read too far to realize that Be The Cowboy is a self-assuring statement to commit to her chosen life of independence. Nor is it difficult to see that she needs a reminder as glaring as her own record’s title—the equivalent to a chronically scatterbrained person tattooing the word “laundry” on their palm so they don’t forget—in order to get the job done.

“You’re my number one / you’re the one I want / and I’ve turned down every hand that has, beckoned me to come,” are the first lines of opener “Geyser,” an overt introduction to her personal drive and a fittingly titled sonic eruption of dramatic strings and synths. It reads like a cinematic pump-up speech with the mirror, and it ends while she’s still steadfast. But then there’s a song like “Lonesome Love,” where she spends the first verse getting gussied up so she can proudly strut in and out of a meetup with her ex. Her intention is to “win,” but it doesn’t go as planned. “Walk up in my high heels / all high and mighty / and you say ‘hello’ / and I lose,” she speak-sings over a folky, Angel Olsen-esque bop. The next line, “Cause nobody butters me up like you / and nobody fucks me like me,” is both the record’s crown jewel and its thesis.

Mitski turns beautiful phrases like, “And the ground has been slowly pulling us back down / you see it on both our skin / we get a few years and then it wants us back,” on nearly every song, as she always has. And like prior album standouts such as “Townie” (Bury Me At Makeout Creek) and “Your Best American Girl” (Puberty 2), she gifts you the exact feeling she wants you to get from each cut. But it’s the fruits of her current partnership with music that make Be The Cowboy the most compelling Mitski album yet.

Something that seems understated in her narrative is that she’s not only an evocative lyricist, but a brilliant musician and an exceptionally talented multi-instrumentalist. All but two of the album’s 14 songs crack the three-minute mark, but each one has a memorable melody, a gratifying arc, and a distinct identity within not just the tracklist, but her entire discography. One of Puberty 2’s only critiques was its fickleness. Compared to the succinct direction of Bury Me At Makeout Creek, which was very much a rock album, Puberty 2 introduced electronic and symphonic instrumentation that, at times, felt clunky alongside ripping power-pop (“A Loving Feeling”) and gnarly noise-pop (“My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”).

She vastly expounded upon those pop and electronic elements on Be The Cowboy, venturing into showtune (“Me and My Husband”) and dance-pop (“Nobody”) territory, while also including two of her grandest “rock” songs to date (“A Pearl” and “Remember My Name”), as well as one of her most dazzling ballads (“Two Slow Dancers”). The variation in tone rarely clashes, but rather defends the album from the threat of a dull moment. The one section where things get slow, at the tail end of the piggybacked ballads “Pink in the Night” and “A Horse Named Cold Air,” you can practically hear her acknowledging it. The booming hand claps and thumping drum machine rhythm of “Washing Machine Heart” come crashing in. It’s like a predetermined adrenaline injection the carries the album through its one-two ending of slowburners, but it doesn’t feel like a plant.

Be The Cowboy’s tracks don’t bleed into one another in the “album as one long song” sense, as is the case with many records that aren’t singles albums. And although it certainly isn’t an album that can be plucked and pruned, the two latter singles “Nobody” and “Two Slow Dancers” are the ones that best demonstrate Mitski’s artistic growth. “Nobody” is a twirling dance number that provides tangible proof she can thrive outside the blanket of rock. It’s both an earworm and a joyride, from its opening cymbal taps to its outro that cleverly collapses over itself and transitions into scratchy, lo-fi recording quality that—intentional or not—throws it back to her Makeout Creek days.

Mitski was almost right for preemptively apologizing for a lack of tear-inducing moments on Be The Cowboy. Almost right. Within its first 20 seconds, closer “Two Slow Dancers” evokes the unmistakable environment of a school-sponsored dance. “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here / It’s funny how they’re all the same,” she croons, dropping the allegory for one of the record’s scarce yet treasured observations. After an album’s worth of begging for kisses and any semblance of a intimacy amidst her simultaneous rejection of human contact, she drops all of the fervor and self-determination and desperation to momentarily reminisce on simpler times.

“It would be a hundred times easier / if we were young again / but as it is, and it is,” she sings, quickly ascending to her falsetto and then adjusting to her booming mid-range as the strings come buzzing in. “To think that we could stay the same,” she repeats three times, adding emphasis to each.

Even cowboys have second thoughts.

Disappointing / Average / Good /Great / Phenomenal

Eli Enis | @eli_enis

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