Album Review: Mitski - Be The Cowboy

While it, to my knowledge, does not happen all that often, there are still cases of what could be called an ‘indie rock one-hit wonder.’ The one that comes to mind almost immediately is the whistling novelty of “Young Folks,” the infectious and inescapable single from Peter, Bjorn, and John—sure, they’ve still toiled along in the decade that’s followed, releasing albums steadily and touring, but the trio will never quite match that ridiculous level of success.

Maybe they don’t need to.

The release of her fourth album, 2016’s Puberty 2, served as a proper introduction to Mitski Miyawak—a young singer and songwriter who was, over the course of her first three records, building toward her sound and aesthetic. Pubert 2 was powered by the breakthrough, attention grabbing single, “Your Best American Girl,” and Miyawaki could have become another one-hit wonder—the kind of song you still hear on public radio playlists every once in a while, but are never really sure what became of the artist responsible.

For all the potential and promise that was alluded to on Puberty 2, Miyawki has returned, two years later, to side-step any notion that “Your Best American Girl” was a fluke, and fulfill that promise on her fifth album—Be the Cowboy, a startling, surprising record that serves as the arrival of an artist—a force to be reckoned with—who is responsible for what may just be one of the finest, most captivating records of 2018.

Bookended by its most cathartic and breathtaking pieces, Be The Cowboy is not so much a ‘concept album,’ but it’s a collection of tightly connected modern love songs—structured around the nervousness and anxieties that come from a relationship, the frustration and sadness that arrive after a heartbreak, and a slightly caricaturized, and times even wholesome or idiosyncratic, ideas and imagery of love. It’s a record that exudes an effortless charm; it’ll make you smile, or laugh, but in turn, it also sends you into frisson on multiple occasions, and by the end, it will devastate you.

Structurally, the album’s three singles—“Geyser,” “Nobody,” and “Two Slow Dancers,” all serve as anchors for the rest of the album. It’s also quite a coincidence that these songs sound almost like nothing else on the record. Releasing these unique slices in advance isn’t so much a bait and switch, but you get the idea of the massive tension and release that is built in throughout Be The Cowboy.

The album opens with its most explosive moment—“Geyser” begins in an almost eerie, ominous fashion as loud, oppressive organ drones (and even a weird slice of distortion that only happens once) give way to Miyawki’s delicate, pleading voice—“You’re my number one—you’re the one I want,” she sings. “And I’ve turned down every hand that has beckoned me to come.” The pulsating organ slowly dissolves and more familiar instrumentation begins to creep in as the song’s tempo begins to pick up drastically thanks to the faint percussion in the background. Around a minute in, the elements start tumbling together, all leading up to that fiery instant (you’ll known it when you hear it)—similar to the same kind of volatile kick she deployed on “Your Best American Girl,” as Miyawaki proclaims, “I’m a geyser—feel it bubbling from below. Hear it call to me! 

Be The Cowboy is the kind of album that demands you pay attention—both lyrically, and musically, Miyawaki is doing some really incredible things here. Throughout, there’s a bit of a give and take with how she writes each ‘love’ song—sometimes it is about the uncontrollable jitters that come from a new relationship; other times it’s the opposite, as she recalls what happens when things are over, or are on the verge of.

I know that I ended it, but why won’t you chase after me?,” she asks very plainly on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”; “You’re growing tired of me—you love me so hard, I still can’t sleep,” she sings on “A Peal. “You’re growing tired of me and all the things I don’t talk about.”; “I call you, to see you again—so I can win, and this can finally end,” she declares on “Lonesome Love.” “Spend an hour doing my make up, to prove something. Walk up in my high heels…and you say ‘Hello,’ and I lose.”

The tone switches noticeably in the album’s second half, where that kind of ‘wholesome,’ or at the very least, quaint charisma, about love comes in. On “Washing Machine Heart,” she croons, I’m not wearing my usual lipstick—I thought maybe we could kiss tonight.” The imagery then changes slightly: “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine,” she sings, which is reminiscent of the possible entendre found in the 1970 odd ball pop song, “Brand New Key,” by Melanie Safka.

Prior to that, on “Pink In The Night,” she swoons with unbridled excitement. She sings the phrase “I love you” nine times in a row, and then confesses, “I could stare at your back all day, and I know I’ve kissed you before but I didn’t do it right. Can I try again?

On “Blue Light,” states it as plainly as she can: “Somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy.

Musically, Miyawaki has experienced a lot of growth between Puberty 2 and Be The Cowboy; in 2016, while she was capable of hitting accessible strides (“Your Best American Girl”), she was still, more or less, working in unease or dissonance1—the larynx shredding “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” or the glitchy, synth heavy soundscapes that permeate “Crack Baby” and “Thursday Girl.” However, here, Miyawaki appears to be more intently focused on making a ‘pop’ record; something that doesn’t keep the listener at an arm’s length.

The layered, torrential bombast of “Geyser” is a jolt to the system, and Miyawaki doesn’t so much dial it back as she moves into the album’s first half, but she does take things in a different direction. There are big, loud moments—like “Remember My Name,” but as a whole, the songs on Be The Cowboy are built to have verses that are almost reserved in nature, written around evocative, and imaginative imagery, juxtaposed against gigantic, hook-laden refrains, with myriad instrumentation, whether it be unrelenting synthesizer patterns, or blasts of a horn section.

The album’s second single, “Nobody,” is also one of its most ambitious and complex in arrangement. It’s a slithering, slinking, post-disco update on the kind of groove The Cardigans slid into 20+ years ago on “Lovefool,” though as jaunty as “Nobody” can sound thanks to its infectious rhythm, it’s exponentially less jubilant lyrically. “My God, I’m so lonely,” Miyawaki sings in a somber range on the track’s opening line; then, later, “I just want somebody near me….I just need someone to kiss—give me one good honest kiss.”

The song, near the end, then eases itself into a cacophonic, swirling conclusion that finds the instrumentation stripped away, and a warped and manipulated version of Miyawaki’s voice repeating “Nobody,” stretched out in such a way that it becomes difficult to tell if the implication is “nobody,” or “no body.”2

Be The Cowboy is the kind of album that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Puberty 2 was a little over a half hour—here, across the album’s 14 tacks, only one of them comes close to being four minutes in length; the average time is, like, between two and three minutes in length. The songwriting is so good and so thought provoking, though, that you kind of wish the album was slightly longer. And, like its predecessor, Be The Cowboy is also a hair over a half hour—but what a half hour it is. From beginning to end, Miyawaki has created a truly emotional rollercoaster, ending with what is, without a doubt, her crowning achievement (so far) as a songwriter—the devastating ballad, “Two Slow Dancers.”

Channeling a moody, ruminating heartbreak the way Annie Clark did on Strange Mercy’s “Champagne Year,” here, Miyawaki reunites two old lovers in a high school gymnasium (the smell is important to the song), as they take to the dance floor for the last chance for a slow dance—reflecting on what was, what wasn’t, and what can never be. Her voice—the kind that can roar with an otherworldly, visceral howl if she wants—has never sounded so pensive and tender as it does here. “It would be a hundred times easier if we were young again,” she says, over the clumsy plunking of electric piano keys, “But as it is, and it is, to think that we could stay the same.”

And it’s there, the final time she sings that line, that she lets her voice continue to climb to fragile heights on the “and it is,” then lets it come crashing back down into the desperate repetition of “To think that we could stay the same.” Arriving in the final moments of Be The Cowboy, an album full of incredible and powerful moments, that right there is the one that stops you right in your tracks and moves you the most—the kind of frisson inducing thing that stays with you and haunts you long after the song has concluded.

There’s no real, tangible resolve by the time Be The Cowboy ends—and that’s part of its allure. The give and take, the tension and release—as it concludes, she has no interest in actually spelling any of it out for you. Love is messy—it’s frustrating, it makes you anxious, it crushes you, and it makes you soar. Be The Cowboy is the space where all these converge into one beautiful, cathartic thing.

Six years into her career as a performer, Miyawaki’s confidence as an artist is unrivaled by what she does on Be The Cowboy. It’s a damn near perfect album from start to finish—the kind of labored over record that sounds unforced, balancing the right amount of accessibility with only a small amount of precociousness; the kind of smartly constructed record that is intended to be listened to as a whole, but also has enough charm to spare so you can pull out a handful of tracks to take on their own. It’s the kind of record you want to tell all of your friends about, or give them all copies of it as gifts, and demand they drop what they are doing for the next half hour and just listen.

It’s worth all this hyperbole and more, because this is, without a doubt, a remarkable achievement for Mitski Miyawaki, and a breathtaking artistic statement.

1- If you want an example of just how dissonant Miyawaki could be, look no further than her infamous 2015 ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ for National Public Radio, which, at one point, finds her screaming into the pick up of her electric guitar.

2- It seems worth mentioning as an aside that in the Genius annotation for “Nobody,” Miyawaki mentions her body image issues and that, over time, she’s both gained and lost weight, again and again. There are lyrics within the song that specifically and literally reference this, but this cryptic ending of ‘nobody’ versus ‘no body,’ leaves one both a little unsettled but also perplexed as to which, if either, are being referenced.

Be The Cowboy is out on August 17th, via Secretly Canadian.