Be the Cowboy the fifth album by Mitski –full name Mitski Miyawaki – followers hear breakthrough album Puberty 2, one of the finest albums of 2016. For the followup, Mitski does a lot of things that worked well on the last album – the melding of musical influences, the use of dynamics, unique vocal melodies, and evocative imagery – while carving out a different sound.
This album is less introspective, with the songs being told from the perspective of fictional characters rather than Mitski herself. There are fewer rock hooks. The songs are shorter and more concise, with all but two of the 14 tracks coming in at under three minutes.
“Geyser” opens the album with haunting, sustained organ notes as Mitski sings about a woman no longer able to control all of the emotions bottled up inside. She contrasts a romantic idea of loyalty (“you’re the one I want and I’ve turned down every hand that’s beckoned me to come”) with a more honest depiction of settling (“you’re the one I got so I’ll keep turning down the hands that beckon me to come”). As the soft, eerie song kicks into the chorus, the organ is joined by drums, bass, distorted guitar, and discordant noise. Guitar distortion isn’t used on Be the Cowboy nearly as often as on previous albums, but when it appears it’s highly effective.
“Sorry I don’t want your touch; it’s not that I don’t want you,” Mitski sings in “A Pearl.” In the emotionally resonant track, Mitski sings of holding onto the pain of a relationship out of habit and assumed identity, not because the relationship is still worth the pain. “It left a pearl in my hand and I roll it around every night just to watch it glow,” she sings over crashing guitars.
Conversely, in “Lonesome Love” Mitski tells the story of a woman who is intent on ending a relationship but is conflicted due to a desire to be loved. “I call you to see you again so I can win and this can finally end,” she sings. “Spend an hour doing my makeup to prove something.” Once she sees him, though, she gives in and abandons the planned breakup. “Why am I so lonely for lonesome love?” she asks.
“Me and My Husband” is an upbeat pop song that sounds optimistic, dealing with fidelity and loyalty. Even so, there’s a hint that such things are only temporary. “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute and then I’ll be nothing forever,” Mitski sings, her voice twisting around the music in one of her atypical vocal melodies.
“Nobody,” with its disco beat and rhythmic piano, is one of Be the Cowboy’s most infectious songs, but its upbeat sound contrasts with themes of isolation. “I don’t want your pity; I just want somebody near me,” Mitski sings over a propulsive dance groove. “Guess I’m a coward; I just want to feel alright.”
“Two Slow Dancers” closes the album with a slow, poignant ballad of an aging couple trying to rekindle what has been lost from their youth. “The ground has been slowly pulling us back down; you see it on both our skin,” she sings over a sparse piano line.
Some of the album’s best moments come in its stark contrasts, when a loud cacophony of music gives way to Mitski’s soft, sullen voice or when a dance beat clashes with grungy rock sounds. Mitski’s voice treads a line between affecting and detached. The sound, from the vocals to pianos and synthesizers, hints at intimacy without letting the listener all the way in. Melding various musical styles, Be the Cowboy is a powerful album that paints vivid scenes that play out but end abruptly before reaching a resolution.