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album review: be the cowboy

Be The Cowboy, the fifth studio album of 27 year old Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki – better known mononymously as Mitski – edges in as the longest album of her musical career, with a running time of 32 minutes. Be The Cowboy was released on August 17, 2018, eliciting nothing but overwhelmingly positive reactions from her most devout fans and the greater music community. While these 14 tracks do not stray too far from her past works by maintaining the bittersweet lyrics and simultaneously somber and upbeat instrumentation characteristic to her back catalog, the album still sounds fresh.

The album begins with “Geyser”, wherein Mitski sings about an unnamed perfect thing to which she is fully devoted. The lyrics float over an eerie instrumentation, resulting in a superb lead in to the album. “Geyser” was the first track released prior to the album, however, this song falters slightly as a single. The absence of the context of the whole of Be The Cowboy leaves listeners in an emotional cliffhanger with Mitski’s nondescript yet evocative lyrics and vocal delivery. As the powerful and lusty reverb of the guitar fades out, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” begins with an incredibly catchy dance beat, making it stand as one of the more upbeat songs on the LP. The vocals then come in and Mitski explains the confusion that she feels after parting ways with a person who made no effort to prevent said separation from happening. However, she quickly realizes that the image of this person that exists in her mind doesn’t align with the actual person. Then, she too lets go of the past as she “paint[s] it over,” and again the instrumentals take center stage. While this song seems somewhat forgettable, perhaps this is precisely its aim, as it is an exploration of the deficiencies of the human memory.

Then comes “Old Friend,” a short and sweet track wherein Mitski sings about how it is both painful and exciting to yearn after an unattainable person. While she knows it is foolish to pursue something unreachable, she still admits that the pursuit in itself is pleasurable. Though she knows that this is “such a silly thing”, she still admits that “every time [she] drives through the city where [they] are from [she] squeeze[s] a little” as she remembers the bittersweet excitement she felt in the company of this unnamed person. To drive in the toxicity of this dynamic, Mitski closed out the track with the repetitive hook, pleading this anomaly of a person to meet her at the discrete “blue diner” just so that she can be with them once more. Thus, Mitski effortlessly lays out the perils of the dating field in this brief story.

“A Pearl” tells a story of restlessness and dissatisfaction. Mitski craves the excitement of the “war” of conflict and discovery in new love. Now, with the monotony of familiarity, the love seems too easy, too perfect, and all around uninteresting. Similarly, “Lonesome Love” explores the complexities of a toxic relationship. This track delves into the push and pull between wanting to find an out from the misery and disappointment of a bad relationship and wanting to feel comfort and closeness, and therefore continuing said relationship. Its four short verses speak to how easy it can be to lose all of the self-respect that one painstakingly cultivates and fall victim to this vicious cycle.

“Remember My Name” takes the narrative of Be The Cowboy into a slightly different, more confident direction. Mitski acknowledges that she is a hard worker and talented artist, “giv[ing] too much of [her] heart” during performances. Additionally, she notes that she has an insatiable desire to receive more recognition and praise for her talents, repeatedly saying that she “needs somebody to remember [her] name”. While in this song, her unfulfillment still traces back to the deficiencies in the tastes other humans, it has nothing to do with romance involving a particular person, it merely describes achieving recognition from the general public. However, this shift in the narrative is fleeting, as the next track returns to the previous theme of imperfect human relationships.

“Me and My Husband” begins with a drawn out sigh, setting the tone for what is to come in the two minute and seventeen second track. Mitski melodically drones on about the troubles she has faced with her fictitious husband. However, while she admits that the relationship is flawed, she concedes that there is still something salvageable in it, motivating her to make the relationship work. This mildly depressing mood is driven in further with “Come Into the Water.” The vague melancholy of “Geyser” is echoed here, as Mitski’s sparse lyrics tell a short story of apprehension. In a moment of self-reflection, Mitski says “maybe I’m the same as all those men writing songs of all they’re dreaming,” acknowledging that the emotional catharsis of the creation of the album, whole it may be good for her, doesn’t do anything particularly novel for the general music scene. However, this emotion is undercut with the sharp tonal shift from this song to the one that follows it.

For a song about loneliness, “Nobody” is incredibly upbeat. This is the second single released by Mitski and my personal favorite of the trio of singles. The irony between the infectious beat and the frustration and hopelessness of the lyrics results in a tense yet catchy tune, successfully making the word nobody seem like the most versatile and catchy word in the English language. The somber mood shows up again in “Pink in the Night.” This song is an exploration of a love so strong that it can withstand failure again and again.  Then comes “A Horse Named Cold Air,” a short, metaphorical track speaking of the perils of the passage of time, in relation to the lifespan of a horse. This track and the preceding one seem somewhat incomplete and short. While they both touch on relatable themes and emotions, they are incredibly short vignettes, merely peering into the complex storylines which Mitski touches on in each song.

With “Washing Machine Heart”, Mitski comes to terms with the fact that love is always going to fall short of her expectations of it. Her rich melodic vocals are laid over an electronic 80’s-esque beat, devolving into a repetitive and vague hook and outro. This is symbolizes her acceptance of the bleakness of the dating scene, coupled with her preservation of hope for improvement. An abrupt change in instrumentation style comes with “Blue Light” as Mitski vocalizes her frustrations. However, this quickly falls apart once again as she becomes transfixed with some Gatsby-esque light, some beacon of hope which may or may not be real, but undoubtedly helps preserve her resilience in the face of romantic trouble. This solemnity is continued with “Two Slow Dancers”, the third and final single released leading up to the full album release. While it perpetuates the sad closing song trope, it does so effortlessly well, encapsulating the overall tone of the release, mirroring the mood of the opening track. It flashes back to a school dance, reminiscing on how easy romance appeared to an adolescent girl. Mitski retains this sweet memory, protecting the purity of it while also acknowledging that things just aren’t that perfect for her anymore.

Be The Cowboy, to me, is the most cohesive work of Mitski’s career, its 14 tracks collectively guiding listeners through their past sorrows one last time before letting them go and opening themselves up to the promise of the future. While some of the songs on this release do seem rather ambiguous and underdeveloped, in my opinion, this is done in service of the greater narrative of Be The Cowboy. If the album is meant to act as a reflection on the past, the human memory has its own flaws, therefore, it naturally follows that the songs have varying degrees of description in them.

Give the album a listen, decide for yourself whether or not the album works.

Mitski will perform at The Wiltern on November 7th, with supporting act Overcoats.

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