From the outset of Be The Cowboy, Mitski warns us she is volatile. The first single to be released from the album, Geyser, uses this natural force to set the tone for what is to come. The beauty of the geyser is its coexistence of power and powerlessness – that inevitable surge of strength is made all the more violent by its unpredictability.
It is a turbulent thing to be a young woman; sometimes chaotic, often vulnerable. On this album, Mitski’s voice can express this clearly, mostly without the distortion that marked her previous two albums and sounding more defiant than ever – but always just on the cusp of losing control. “I’m a geyser,” she sings, “feel it bubbling from below.” So when the emotion does come, bright or dark, we cannot say we weren’t warned.
The premise behind the album’s title is Mitski’s desire to embody the power of a cowboy – the unapologetic white male figure who behaves with complete authority and no consequence. In this spirit, each short track on the album is brief but explosive, making its mark before swaggering off into the sunset. In interviews, however, Mitski has made it clear that this choice is more pragmatic than artistic. A notably different concept from, for example, a 13-minute Father John Misty think-piece on self – she wastes no time in order to fight against marginalisation and make her voice heard. What we are left with is succinct, but loses nothing in musical or lyrical complexity, marked by the same hard-hitting mixture of vulnerability and strength that defined her 2014 breakout Bury Me at Makeout Creek and 2016’s compelling Puberty 2.
Cracks in the cowboy façade are not weaknesses but highlights, as our protagonist lets us glimpse the excruciation of trying to craft an image and maintain control when the game is rigged against you. On country-tinged Lonesome Love, our cowboy berates and praises herself in equal measure, casually delivering the album’s best line with “nobody butters me up like you / and nobody fucks me like me.” On Pink in the Night, she captures the anxiety of a perfectionist losing control: “I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right / can I try again,” repeating the latter phrase until the song ends, a geyser trying in vain to stem the emotion which can’t help but erupt.
In calms between storms, we are treated to theatrical little vignettes such as the fond and reminiscent Old Friend, or the Broadway-ish Me And My Husband, where our protagonist considers the deceptive calm of domesticity and the warring desires to be both everything to everyone and nothing to no one: “I’ll steal a few breaths from the world for a minute / and then I’ll be nothing forever.”
Be The Cowboy is teeming with such paradoxes. A Pearl is dazzling, exposing the powerless terror of pushing someone away by being too distant: “I’m sorry I don’t want your touch / it’s not that I don’t want you,” before the music swells and Mitski admits the impossibility of letting go of a love so tempestuous. Such moments of vulnerability expose the cost of cowboy-ism; it is hard to wreak your own havoc without catching a couple of blows.
Remember My Name is the record’s angriest song, but also the most defeated, expressing the typically female exhaustion that comes with wringing yourself out for a lover; a friend; an audience: “I need somebody to remember my name / after all that I can do for them is done.” Washing Machine Heart could be the prelude to this emptiness, its insistent beat backdropping an infatuation both mundane and all-consuming: “will you kiss me already / and toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart/baby, bang it up inside.”
Nobody is a glorious centrepiece – birthed out of the excruciating solitude of a Christmas spent alone in Malaysia, the chorus is twistedly jubilant, repeating the empty pronoun until there’s nothing left to do but sing along. Mitski recently toured with Lorde, and it would fit that Nobody is a banger whose ideology is firmly in sync with the spirit of Melodrama: taking the sad, messy, tender parts of existence (particularly young female existence) and making them danceable. At times it borders on satirical – those upbeat disco guitars have no place backing such melancholy, and there is something delicious about the absurdity of a cheesy pop clap at the end of the repeated “still nobody wants me.” It is a neat little triumph that laughs at the double bind of a soul unable to control its outbreaks of emotion, but at the mercy of the impulse to make the pain marketable.
As the album nears its close, Blue Light seems to recall the opener of her 2012 debut Lush, ‘Liquid Smooth’ – a piano ballad expressing the theatrical desperation of young loneliness (‘what am I to do with all this beauty?’) expressing all the anxiety of a young woman plagued by the pressure to gather her rosebuds while she may. Be The Cowboy’s version is shorter, simpler, yet all the more manic with its urgent guitars: “I’m going crazy / I’m walking round the house naked,” distilling the turbulence of young female emotion in few words.
Mitski has a chameleon skill for seeing the same issue from polarised angles. Where the ephemerality of youth and love is desperate on Blue Light, the song hasn’t even reached two minutes in length before we are swept into the introspective Two Slow Dancers, a vignette of an old couple dancing with sad resignation to very same passing of time that was cause for a tailspin only one track earlier. It is a surprising lull with which to close the album, a slow but spirited surrender to those forces which can no longer be fought against.
Mitski’s latest is an album of paradoxes. In fourteen short songs, she asks us to understand (or at least gaze upon – she doesn’t want our pity) what it is to be both too naïve and too old, too distant and too close, too restrained and too chaotic. This is her best work yet, establishing herself as an artist who contains multitudes. Be The Cowboy gives us a lucky glimpse of just 30 minutes of them. – lizzie mccreadie (@franzgaffka)