Like all good music, Mitski’s “Be the Cowboy” leaves the listener both devastated and hopeful
When Mitski sang, “Guess I’m a coward, I just want to feel alright,” I felt that. In her fifth studio album “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski deviates from the indie rock of “Puberty 2,” her last album (and a good one), opting for pop instead. It serves as a new color palette for her music, and the results are triumphant.
“Be the Cowboy” has a rather long tracklist with fourteen short songs (only two tracks hit the three-minute mark), but each one is a gem; if anything, I wish there were more. The album begins on a darker note with the mysterious “Geyser” setting the tone of a dissociative sadness, developing into the bubblegum pop of “Me and My Husband.” This crescendos into the mania of “Washing Machine Heart” and ultimately ends on the melancholy resignation of “Two Slow Dancers.”
One of the most fascinating things about Mitski is her guarded personal life. She is a highly private individual; in media interviews, she is often extremely reserved and candid about the fact that she feels no need to share her life with the world. This serves as a fascinating juxtaposition to the vulnerability of her lyricism. This effect of art without context greatly enhances the album: rather than being stuck in the narrative of being a “breakup album” or getting slogged in a personal history, “Be the Cowboy” is able to rely entirely on lyrics to give it its own narrative structure. This allows “Be the Cowboy” to act as a Rorschach test for its listener. Mitski does not tell us what to think, instead, the listener is tasked to find their own meaning in the music itself. There is a wide range of accessibility within “Be the Cowboy,” as the emotions contained within it can be chalked up to being representational of the human experience.
While Mitski’s lyrics and vocals are raw in the sense that they are highly personal, they are not unrefined. She has shed some of the angry grunge of her “Puberty 2” days, trading it for a more polished version of Mitski. “Puberty 2” Mitski could beat me up outside a bar, whereas “Be the Cowboy” Mitski wouldn’t care about me enough to feel the need.
Mitski once again proves her skill as a wordsmith capable of packing a punch of words into lines that linger. From the haunting imagery of the chorus of “A Pearl,” where Mitski sings “But it’s just that I fell in love with a war / and nobody told me it ended,” to the incredibly flippant, yet heart tugging, “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing heart baby bang it up inside” from “Washing Machine Heart,” every line in “Be the Cowboy” is premeditated. The tactile nature of her lyrics at times even provoke the senses, such as in “Two Slow Dancers,” when Mitski sings “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here? / It’s funny how they’re all the same.”
“Be the Cowboy” is the kind of album that occurs when an artist is so deeply in touch with themselves they are able to present their thoughts simply and succinctly enough for the audience to get it. In the case of Mitski, it’s a profound gift.