The first time I listened to the new Mitski album I broke down crying within the first 10 minutes of my drive to work. Having seen her live, I knew the emotional power she was capable of conjuring, but the beauty and pain present in this work was unlike anything I had heard in a long time. With each listen, it has grown abundantly clear that I have been listening to a modern great fully reaching the heights of her abilities.
Mitski has spent the last 4 years skyrocketing to both indie and pop fame through her critically acclaimed albums Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014) and Puberty 2 (2016). The success of these albums, combined with an intense touring schedule including opening for the Pixies in 2017 and Lorde in 2018, has made Mitski a household name. Despite the success, the whirlwind of activity led Mitski to feel drained and isolated. These emotions, combined with the idea of a single performer alone on a stage and attempting to emulate the swagger of a cowboy, led to the creation of the crushingly beautiful Be the Cowboy.
The album gracefully enters with lead single “Geyser,” opening to droning keyboards and Mitski’s peaceful voice. This isolated peace is quickly disrupted by a distorted screech, the entrance of a piano, and a soft tambourine, each taking the song in a new direction, culminating in an assault of guitars and synthesizers “bubbling from below” the loneliness. This creates the effect of a curtain opening behind this lone performer, revealing a massive band backing them. The remainder of the first half of the album feels this way, reverting back to sounds of isolation on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” and “Old Friend,” which play out like Mitski playing guitar and singing along to a drum machine in a small club, with the curtain opening again occasionally revealing a dynamic accompaniment on tracks like “A Pearl” and “Lonesome Love.” Despite the full-band feel, the lyrics of these songs explore those feelings of loneliness deeper than most, giving no respite from the solitary tone of the album.
Each of these quick hitting songs builds upon the last, directing the listener toward the album’s triumphant climax-- “Nobody.” Although the song begins in the piano-driven style found in many of the previous tracks, it quickly shifts into a dreamy disco-y pop masterpiece, over which the feelings of loneliness come to a head in its pointed lyrics. “I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss,” Mitski sings as the song builds to the chorus, a realization that brings brief comfort and a way out of these feelings, before immediately snatching that comfort away as the simple chorus reveals there is “nobody” to fill that role. Despite the subject matter, the song grows into a kaleidoscopic wall of synthesizers and guitar that sucks the listener in and makes dancing the pain away the only option. The remainder of the album fades from this peak, the exposed piano and vocals in “A Horse Named Cold Air” giving the impression that the audience has now gone, leaving the performer completely alone. Although the main character reunites with an old acquaintance in the closing track, “Two Slow Dancers”, it is not enough to mend the damage caused by time.
Be the Cowboy reveals Mitski’s true power as a songwriter, perfectly illustrating her ability to handle heavy subject matter in a way that is fascinating to listen to. She builds upon the musical and vocal abilities displayed on her previous releases to redefine her style without losing sight of what drew fans in, to begin with. This skillful musicianship, combined with Patrick Hyland’s production, fully immerses listeners into the world of the record, creating a seamless work that is best listened to in its entirety. Give this album your full attention, feel a lot of feelings, and be prepared to listen over and over again.
TL;DR For fans of: Angel Olsen, Japanese Breakfast, crying on the dance floor Our take: Cohesive narrative; crushing lyrics; walls of sound; emotional depth