Be the Cowboy
Dead Oceans · August 17, 2018
The album serves as Mitski’s fearless foray into narrative-forward lyricism, which she approaches with the deftness of an experienced fiction writer. This spectacular musical thesis is embodied in full by the title, which serves a dualistic function. “Be the cowboy” is a phrase that Mitski has claimed is an inside joke with herself, coined to give her the confidence to make exactly the music she feels like making. However, the phrase also acts as a sort of directive; it is easy to lose oneself in the narrative of these fourteen personalities.
Mitski’s works have always had a theatrical flair to them – she originally intended to major in Film in college – and Be the Cowboy is no exception. Combining powerful, poetic lyrics with varied instrumental themes, the album fully engages the listener, engulfing them in a flurry of emotions, memories, and soundscapes. Each track has a unique musical tone, and Mitski bounces from disco (‘Nobody’) to jangly pop (‘Me and My Husband’) to western music imbued with synth and watery guitar (‘Lonesome Love’). Yet the grab-bag assortment of genres is far from displeasing; rather, it helps to delineate the vignettes, signaling to the listener that another story is unfolding.
Be the Cowboy opens with the explosive ‘Geyser,’ a track that lives up to its name. Mitski’s voice enters slowly, as if from a dream, becoming steadier and more feverish until she explodes with a cry of undying devotion, and the instrumentals help to portray the simmering, uncontrollable feelings of an all-consuming love. ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’ immediately follows, jarring the listener from the theatrical display with a cheery pop song that carries some hefty emotional baggage. In ‘Lonesome Love,’ Mitski taps into the millennial concept of “back on my bullshit,” portraying a woman who is her own worst enemy when it comes to love. She croons gut-punch lyrics like “Nobody butters me up like you do, and nobody fucks me like me,” over a gently swaggering western melody.
‘Nobody,’ which is arguably both the most intriguing and accessible track on Be the Cowboy, is seemingly more autobiographical. Written during her solo holiday abroad, the track reflects on the nature of loneliness and the desire for honest companionship over a peppy disco beat, another laudable example of Mitski’s use of dissonance between music and lyrics. At the key change, Mitski begins to literally disappear, her voice replaced with a haunting recording that simply repeats “nobody” until that too begins to break down.
‘Two Slow Dancers’ proves to be a haunting, beautiful album closer, with Mitski at her most theatrical. The track plays as if ripped straight from a movie scene, depicting an aging couple fighting to keep the relationship alive. Mitski, who at 27 could not know such a feeling, adeptly addresses a common, terrible fear that grips so many married couples: how can we maintain the romance once the novelty has worn off? The instrumentals underline this sentiment, entering at a glacial pace, eventually reaching shimmering heights at the climax of the song before settling back down to their starting dynamics.
By bookending Be the Cowboy with two powerful tracks – the first about a feverish love, and the last about a love that is dying – Mitski manages to encapsulate an entire range of human emotion in half an hour. The raw, passionate power that lies in her music is the reason why fans resonate so much with Mitski. With Be the Cowboy, everybody wins: Mitski’s experimentation with fiction allows her to be a vehicle for our memories, the stimulus for our emotional pain, and the impetus for our reflection, and she is able to rise above the fray, untouched, ever the true artist.