Be The Cowboy
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Mitski Miyawaki candidly aired some of the frustrations she faces as a female songwriter: “I was always bothered when people say, ‘I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal,’” Mitski says. “Yes, it is personal. But that’s so gendered. There’s no feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe she’s a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art.’” Her fifth and newest album, Be the Cowboy, is a bold corrective to those assumptions. Consciously embracing “narrative and fiction,” her latest collection of songs follows “a very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel...still, there is something very primordial in her that is trying to find a way to get out.”
To highlight this artifice, Miyawaki retrofits each of these fourteen songs with material from a diverse array of genres; flitting gamely between breezy disco, gleaming electro, swaggering alt-rock and wistful balladry like elaborate costume changes in a big budget musical. Versatility has long been a hallmark of Mitski’s, but here her stylistic wanderlust emerges less like a cautious wade past the shoreline than a decisive cannonball into the deep end. The production from longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland has a new polish and the distortion has been dialed back to make room for more synths, strings and horns--the usual signifiers of an album meant to be heard as a step forward.
Except here, those same gestures are shrewdly re-purposed to tease out the barely concealed desperation within these vignettes; they project a fragile confidence that has begun to curdle from within. On the otherwise sleek electro of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” chords slide briefly out of tune only to snap right back in, like a person over-correcting a revealing facial expression. Throughout the album, subtle disruptions evoke a collapsing facade with uncanny accuracy-- melodies don’t resolve and songs often end abruptly. The carefree disco of recent single “Nobody” takes on a fraught air as it undergoes several queasy key changes. The spacious opening moments of “Geyser” are ruptured by a surreal, blink-and-you-missed-splash of digital noise.
All of which might make Be the Cowboy sound like a difficult album, but nothing could be further from the truth; the artsiest touches are employed with a restraint and precision calibrated to hit you even more forcefully in the gut. Above all else, Mitski knows how to spin a devastating turn of phrase in the form of a killer hook. Her lyrics chronicle the relationship between what we know we should want vs. what we really do want with a clarity more ruthless than almost any other songwriter working today. On “A Pearl,” she perfectly captures the all too human tendency to mistake drama for passion and stability for boredom in one swift couplet: “It’s just that I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended.”
Which is not to say it’s all doom and gloom; she also finds vicious humor in our propensity for self-sabotage. On country weeper “Lonesome Love,” as she unsuccessfully attempts to leave an uncaring lover for the fifth (of fiftieth) time, her only consolation is the shrugging admission: “‘Cause nobody butters me up like you do / And nobody fucks me like me.”
Despite being fourteen tracks long, Be the Cowboy runs a scant 32 minutes. While brevity is certainly nothing new for Mitski, the effect is especially pronounced on a record as willfully eclectic as this one, where certain songs intentionally evaporate just as they’ve begun to leave the ground. While that makes for some jarring moments in the space between tracks, the total impression is one of strange cohesion; one faithful to the messy universe of fickle desire and crippling indecision that Mitski depicts so vividly.