Mitski’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ demonstrates layered brilliance

Bringing something new to the table this summer, singer-songwriter Mitski showcases 14 intimate, varied tracks that reveal profound maturity on her album, “Be the Cowboy.” Courtesy of Courtney Emery via Flickr.

The 14 songs on Mitski Miyawaki’s fifth studio album are short, most of them clocking in at around two minutes. But do not let that fool you—rather than feeling underdeveloped, the length of these songs reflects the meticulousness with which Mitski has crafted them. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter has made a name for herself in indie rock over the course of her past four albums, all of which have highlighted her advanced musicianship, genre-blending and unique lyricism in distinct ways. “Be the Cowboy”—released Aug. 17 by Dead Oceans—is no exception.

Aside from the brevity of its songs, what sets “Be the Cowboy” apart from its predecessors is the strength of its thematic cohesion. While the title perhaps initially conjures up images of the Wild West, the phrase is given a new meaning in the context of the album art, which could just as easily be a shot for a movie poster (indeed, Mitski has commented that the album was partially inspired by the film “The Piano Teacher,” among others). The cover depicts Mitski, clad in an old-fashioned shower cap, with her makeup being done by a hand belonging to no one, staring out at the viewer with an expression that emanates both hesitance and quiet strength. This is an album about a woman trying to maintain control of herself and her narrative, navigating the contradictions of the messiness of life, love, adulthood and the glossy, performative nature of being an artist and celebrity.

The duality of glossy and messy is reflected just as much within the album itself. Production-wise, “Be the Cowboy” feels far removed from her breakout third studio album “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” which used a lo-fi aesthetic and plenty of grungy distortion to capture the rugged intensity of her songs. “Be the Cowboy” is much more cleanly produced, filled with reverb-drenched guitar lines, soaring synths and booming percussion tracks that highlight Mitski’s powerful vocals, which she left fairly pristine compared to the double-tracking and intricate vocal harmonies present on her previous albums. The resulting music feels more pop-oriented than anything else Mitski has released to date. However, this stylistic change does not rob the music of any of its authenticity; despite its cleaner production, the burning tenacity that has always defined Mitski’s music shines through, as does the impression that she uses each song to push her emotions to their breaking point.

The songs explore distinct emotions by capturing moments in time, and their brevity contributes to their fleeting, vignette-like nature. The album is filled to the brim with cinematic imagery: “Meet me at Blue Diner/I’ll take coffee and talk about nothing, baby” she sings wistfully on “Old Friend.”On “Nobody,” the album’s most successful single, she wonders aloud, “Venus, planet of love/ Was destroyed by global warming/Did its people want too much too?” The song then builds and explodes into a disco-tinged anthem to loneliness that feels almost impossible not to dance to.

In one of the album’s standout tracks, “A Pearl,” Mitski uses a chilling metaphor to describe the realization that she has been holding on to past toxicity so strongly that it has become tied to her identity. “It’s just that I fell in love with a war/ Nobody told me it ended/And it left a pearl in my hand and I roll it around/Every night just to watch it glow,” she declares, just as much to herself as to her audience. She lets us into her world in a way that feels very personal on “Remember My Name,” a song that explores her conflicting need for both immortality and emotional closeness: “I gave too much of my heart tonight/Can you come to where I’m staying and make some extra love/That I can save till tomorrow’s show.”

In a Pitchfork piece published a month before the album’s release, Mitski issued a preemptive apology to fans who were excitedly anticipating new music to cry to: “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’”(Pitchfork, “Don’t Cry for Mitski,” 07.12.2018).

Yet, in a later interview for Fact Magazine, she declared, “This is my saddest album” (Fact, “Mitski on her Piano Teacher-inspired, ‘saddest’ album ‘Be the Cowboy,’” 07.19.2018). Listening to the album in full, these seemingly contradictory statements both ring true. Mitski certainly writes sad songs, and the extra maturity present throughout the album perhaps makes it her darkest set of songs yet. Still, “Be the Cowboy” is not an album purely of despair—it contains moments of excitement, devotion, self-doubt, confrontation and hope. Mitski’s world is filled with contradictions, and the honesty with which she navigates and confronts them on “Be the Cowboy” make these songs feel beautifully universal.

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