ALBUM REVIEW: Mitski, Be The Cowboy
As was discussed in Episode 51 of our podcast, each album by Mitski catches her at a certain point in her life. On Puberty 2, she was transitioning from her college days to the brink of superstardom. On what I believe to be her second best, Be The Cowboy, we see her weighing all of her options regarding love and realizing that none of them are really any good. Just like with one of her latest singles, “Working For The Knife”, she is directly addressing music and the songwriting process on the opener “Geyser”. “You’re the number one, you’re the one I want” she sings to her art. It is a bubbling influence underneath the surface that has always spoken to her, waiting to manifest itself in beautiful records like this. It is the only song here where she is dead sure of herself, because the preceding tracks are all filled with self-doubt.
“Why Didn’t You Stop Me” and “Old Friend” are about going back into an old relationship, whether physically or hypothetically. On the former cut, she is struggling to understand what made her love this person. On the latter, she is having a sneaky rendezvous with the ex, meeting up at a diner and telling her current boyfriend “it’s just an old friend”. “I’ll take anything you want to give me baby”, she sings, down bad. There is such a strong thematic cohesion right out the gate, each chapter here is short and gives a different poetic viewpoint into her mindset. Mostly, at least in the first half, she is attempting to prove something regarding an old relationship. Whether it’s on “A Pearl” where she holds the fragmented memories in her hand lovingly, or on “Lonesome Love” where she is trying to “win” the breakup, Mitski is trying her damndest to make it all work out, but failing miserably.
“Come into the Water” and “Me and My Husband” are all about grinning and bearing unhappiness in search of stability, and the latter track is another short vignette that puts men at the center (ironically). “I didn’t know I had a dream until I saw you” Mitski faintly sings, as if her feminine thoughts and hopes are null unless validated by a man. As we get deeper into the second half of the album, the measures get more desperate and the song structures get more jagged, as do the emotions. “Pink in the Night” links back to “Old Friend” and “A Pearl”, she has these rose-tinted glasses on, wanting to try again at a love that failed for good reasons. As you get older, the availability of warmth and comfort gets less frequent when you hack it on your own. It’s as if Mitski is out in the cold and all the houses and hotels around her are turning off their lights, leaving her to freeze. “A Horse Named Cold Air” is a direct connection to that thought, where she paints herself as a weary traveler realizing that she is older and nothing new has come of her toiling. “I thought/I'd traveled/A long way/But I had/Circled the same old sin” is a set of lyrics that deeply worries me, considering I left a state of comfort in Connecticut to do music journalism full time. I wonder if sometimes living a mundane existence like on “Me and My Husband” is the move, even though I pray that this isn’t the case.
Be The Cowboy generally sees Mitski shifting from art-rock and punk over to synth-based compositions and stark freak poetry soundtracked minimally. The two most streamed tracks of her career, “Nobody” and “Washing Machine Heart” both fall firmly in the former category, with prominent pianos, ‘80s rock drums and guitars as well as bright synths. Even with a brighter tone, she is feeling nowhere close to being alright. “Nobody” is a call out to the void for not even love, but just a good kiss. Mitski has been “big and small, and big and small again”, shaping herself to what she thinks people want, yet she is still left miserable. Even when she gets a bit of “love” as on “Washing Machine Heart”, it ends up with some banging around and leaving after the job is done (like dirty shoes in a washer). The track “Blue Light” sees her left out in a cold ocean with heaps of fog masking her vision. She sees an illumination in the distance, is it a lighthouse or a sea siren? She is going deeply mad and even the faintest glimmer of the representation of masculinity has her like PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. This album is a perfectly paced and amazingly sequenced series of little peeks into Mitski’s love life that culminates with one of the best tracks she’s ever written, “Two Slow Dancers”. Here over spare pianos, she finally gets the warmth and familiarly she desires, but it’s fleeting. It’s as if she is slow dancing with all of us lonely souls, and when the album ends, so does the affection.
Be The Cowboy is a beautiful metaphor for love, life and the pursuit of happiness, with Mitski taking on many roles. She is the other woman, she is the wife, the lonely drifter, the old woman with her old husband, and the conclusion is that it’s all kind of pointless in various ways, mainly because life ends at some point. I can completely understand why she shifted to more obtuse and general music on her newest album, I feel like writing like this takes a lot out of a person. She really took all her trials and desperation and put it in a picture frame for us all to look at. Maybe it’s not even a painting, but it’s a mirror. If you’re single, in a relationship, or somewhere in between, elements of her experience are universal and likely apply to you specifically. What does it mean to “be the cowboy”? It means everything and nothing all at once, and whatever path you decide to pick, you better be the fucking cowboy in that. You want to be a stud going around to the saloons, going upstairs with the harlots each night? Be the cowboy. You want to be a lonely high plains drifter, you better make sure you can make yourself a campfire. You want a wife and five kids on a farm like Lexi and Fez from Euphoria? Well, you better know how to buck break and coral those fucking cows. Leave your insecurities and existential dread in the past, and Be The Cowboy.