Mitski Miyawaki (mononymously known as Mitski) is a powerhouse. The Japanese-American artist is only 27 years old, and her new album; Be The Cowboy is her fifth album in six years. Her 2016 album Puberty 2 was released to universal critical acclaim, single “Your Best American Girl” landed on multiple “best songs of 2016” lists, and starting in March this year, she joined Lorde as an opener for the New Zealand artist’s Melodrama World Tour. To say that Mitski has been having a hard working, busy, few years is an understatement. Within Be The Cowboy, there’s a new central focus for Mitski: the loneliness that accompanies a young woman as she relentlessly tours to continue being a musician for a living. Of course, her words are as sharp and powerful as ever. There’s no one who has so effectively mastered the art of explosive, endlessly fascinating songwriting. She switches between personifying fictional characters, while a number of tracks follow her relationship with music (“Geyser” and “Remember My Name” spring to mind) rather than other people, or herself. This is undoubtedly Mitski’s most ambitious album yet, and also the culmination of all her past work. The album has an unbelievable amount of musical ideas wrapped up inside it, and in any other artist’s hands, it might not work. Be The Cowboy is only 33 minutes long – only three songs are longer than two and a half minutes, but it all flows beautifully. All the ideas are anchored by ethereal vocals and haunting lyrical gems. Just looking at the singles, it’s clear that Mitski is confident in making yet another sonic departure. Take second single “Nobody”; an infectious disco-pop banger that’s nothing like anything else in her discography. Album opener “Geyser” is bombastic and combines the piano and organ found in her first two records, Lush and Retired From Sad, New Career In Business and joining them is the crashing, distorted guitars that defined her breakout album, Bury Me At Make Out Creek. Final single “Two Slow Dancers” is a gorgeous, nostalgic piano ballad. There’s no one who tackles nostalgia and loneliness like Mitski.
Apparently, Mitski has a real knack for writing pop songs, too. Is there anything she can’t do? “Nobody,” “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?,” and “Washing Machine Heart” are some of her grooviest songs yet. They should be mega hits. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” is deceptively upbeat. It’s also pretty crazy, featuring horns, a fun repetitive synth sample reminiscent of the one that framed Puberty 2’s “Happy,” and a synth-and-guitar-lead climax to close the song. Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Mitski sings in a slightly higher register than usual – this immediately caught me off guard, I thought I knew her voice and different tones like the back of my hand. She is dissecting the end of an important relationship, and asks to just “paint it over.” “Washing Machine Heart” could easily be a companion to “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?.” It’s another poppy, unusual song where someone is invited to toss their dirty shoes into her washing machine heart, and “bang it up inside.” The contrast between the self-destructive lyrics and the catchiest melodies in her entire discography is so very Mitski. Be The Cowboy could’ve been “Washing Machine Heart” x14 and remained a captivating listen. Personally, I couldn’t be happier that “Old Friend,” a song that captures wistfulness for a “blue diner” that I’ve never seen but would now love to visit follows “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?.” “Old Friend” is a plain but lovely track that features Mitski back on the piano, and simple acoustic strumming holds it all together. Her longing request to visit the blue diner and “take coffee and talk about nothing, baby” takes listeners to a place everyone in town would know; it’s retro but familiar. Mitski has a talent for writing songs that sound old-timey, like the Angel Olsen-lite “Lonesome Love” and the misleadingly jaunty “Me And My Husband”.
In the mournful “Lonesome Love,” we hear Mitski trying to prove that she’s over someone. She spends an hour putting on her make up. She walks in wearing her high heels, “all high and mighty” but ultimately loses once they say “hello.” She then takes the blame for getting hurt again, and explains that “nobody butters me up like you” but “nobody fucks me like me.” “Me And My Husband,” on the other hand, is a bit more unusual. There’s a deep sigh just before the piano and drums come bursting in. Again, Mitski sings in a higher register. She’s already indicating that while the music is joyful, the story is not as it seems. In an interview with the 405, Mitski says this about “Me And My Husband”:
…I think a lot of marriages are like that because that’s what it is; it’s no longer about being in love. It’s really hard to stay in love and keep the spark. When you get married and you’re with someone for years and years, it no longer becomes about infatuation or having your heart aflutter. But the song is just about “you know what, this may not be love anymore, and I may be unhappy, and I’m going to die one day and this is just going to be my life.” But then turning around and saying “this is the decision I made, and you’re the person I chose, so I’m just going to stick with you. We have our problems, but this is our life and we’re going to live it.” And that’s what it’s about.
It’s heartbreaking, but fits right in to the multiple narratives and themes running throughout Be The Cowboy. Hearing her misdirect listeners with accessible, uplifting sounds and juxtaposing them with some of her most self-deprecating (“I am the idiot with the painted face”), candid lyrics is genius. “Nobody” is arguably the song that accomplishes this the best.
“My god, I’m so lonely / so I open the window to hear sounds of people”, Mitski croons in “Nobody,” one of Be The Cowboy’s standout tracks. Like a majority of her lyrical content, “Nobody” is raw. We hear a woman completely vulnerable, and that vulnerability is seeping through the wonderful pop song. In the music video, it’s largely Mitski ft. Mitski in an eerie nightmare scene. It’s interesting watching the colourful, peculiar video for “Nobody” compared to the equally dramatic but grey video for “Geyser.” Be The Cowboy is fully immersed in drama and intimacy, and most importantly: confidence. Mitski continues to explore intimacy in the album’s second half. She shares the softness she feels in her heart through recurring motifs. Recurring motifs in music have always been fascinating to me, and I find it unfortunate that most artists don’t experiment with their lyrical approach and apply a motif or narrative. From “Nobody” onwards, we hear Mitski express a desire to be kissed. She’s “just asking for a kiss,” just “one good movie kiss” and she’ll be all right. In the beautiful, sweeping love ballad “Pink In The Night,” she’s glowing pink because she’s so infatuated with somebody and confesses, “I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right.” In the delightful “Washing Machine Heart”, she’s exasperated and craves to be kissed already! Then, she pleads, “somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy” in “Blue Light.” Mitski is an artist who knows her ambitions, is extremely self-aware and allows herself to portray the need to burst open through her music. Although she’s threatening to burst at the seams, there is something Mitski won’t let herself or listeners forget: she is a woman in control.
For Be The Cowboy’s press release, Mitski explains the album title as “a kind of joke”, and continues to say, “There was this artist I really loved who used to have such a cowboy swagger. They were so electric live. With a lot of the romantic infatuations I’ve had, when I look back, I wonder, did I want them or did I want to be them? Did I love them or did I want to absorb whatever power they had? I decided I could just be my own cowboy.” Be The Cowboy is electric. The music seems to effortlessly veer from sombre piano ballads to upbeat pop, to slight jazz to sublime indie rock. This is something Mitski has always excelled at – making the complex sound remarkably simple. And, the simple things she does do are always fantastic. The straightforward fuzzy guitar riff running through “Remember My Name” has been in my head for days, and “I need something bigger than the sky, hold it in my arms and know it’s mine” is already a fan-favourite line. As is “it’s just that I fell in love with a war, and nobody told me it ended” from the epic and melancholic “A Pearl.” “A Pearl” may be the most essential song on Be The Cowboy. It’s the track that nails what Mitski asked herself in the press release – did she love them or did she want to absorb whatever power they had? “A Pearl” finds her rolling the pearl that was left over in her hand, only looking at this pretty object and avoiding examining toxicity that lies inside a relationship. Mitski doesn’t just look at something pretty, for nostalgia’s sake. She takes her listeners on journeys. She brings us to a school gymnasium in Be The Cowboy’s album closer, “Two Slow Dancers.” She keeps her dry wit with her as she reminds listeners of the smell of school gymnasiums; “It’s funny how they’re all the same.” The school gymnasium is the chosen destination for two ex-lovers to share a final dance. They are “two slow dancers, last ones out”, wishing the moment could last forever. “Two Slow Dancers” is mellow, but Mitski doesn’t hold back from sharing the anxiety of growing old. Though she’s still young herself, she can’t help focusing her fifth album on longing for the past and imagining relationships better than they actually were. To be honest, I’m relieved that Be The Cowboy breaks from the album closers of her past work. While “A Burning Hill” and “Last Words of a Shooting Star” are stunning, intense songs, they are worryingly frank songs that had me feeling like I was snooping through her diary. But here, she embraced fiction and larger-than-life storytelling. She became her own cowboy. With Be The Cowboy, Mitski has a newfound assurance that’s just wonderful for fans new and old to watch blossom before their eyes. Do you want to be your own cowboy? I know I want to be.