Within the crystalline opening notes of “Geyser” — the first track on Mitski’s fifth and arguably best album “Be The Cowboy” — it is already apparent that Mitski Miyawaki has greatly matured since her second puberty. The song’s punchy, icy hook eventually gushes forward and soars to triumphant heights that mark a new level of quality for a musician who is constantly outdoing herself. While nothing on the album resonates with such uniquely magnificent power as “Geyser”, “Be The Cowboy” still delivers on its title and charts a transformative experience with heartbreaking, finger-snapping clarity.
“Be The Cowboy” comes on the heels of Mitski’s last album “Puberty 2,” which arrived in the summer of 2016 and secured Mitski a place at the top of almost every publication’s “Best Artist of the Year” list. The album was a stellar mediation on identity, love and alienation, themes present in almost all of Mitski’s work. As a Japanese-American woman who spent her formative years moving frequently from country to country, Mitski easily taps into the isolation that would result from such a childhood,the feeling of separation and of failure to form a concrete identity. Her body of work is connected by an overarching theme of absence – loss of love, emptiness, aching voids.
The way she approaches writing about what is not there rather than what is allows Mitski to elevate “Be The Cowboy” to yet unseen heights. She delivers punch after punch with her short, snappy tracks — 14 in total, a slight increase from previous albums — weaving in and out of narratives about soured affection and uninterested husbands with characteristic grace and forward momentum. Fans of Mitski’s fuzzy guitars might be a little disappointed by the increased use of more diverse instruments and electronic beats, but the evolution of her sound underscores the growth of the woman posed at the center of it all. While the songs vary in subject matter, there is a nebulous figure at the core of “Be The Cowboy” who is rapidly maturing, evolving and, well — becoming the cowboy.
There is something to be said about Mitski’s choice to base her record, which at times feels a little more disjointed in genre and sound than previous albums, on the archetype of the cowboy. The stereotypical cowboy — overwhelmingly American, unswervingly male — is a hardened individual who walks with a swagger and is fulfilled by a seemingly lonely life. And the woman circling through the dramatic highs and lows on “Be The Cowboy” is no different, strutting through scenes and trying to embrace her loneliness. She is the tough-as-leather rider on horseback, galloping through trauma and anger with her defenses raised and head held high.
Some songs delve into this theme better than others, with album highlight “Nobody” going right for the jugular and contrasting some of Mitski’s most emotionally ravaging lyrics about loneliness against a brisk disco beat. “A Pearl” and “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” both seethe with regret on opposite sides of the sonic spectrum, with the former utilizing Mitski’s signature guitar and clear, concise vocals that seem seconds away from splintering into a primal yell and the latter employing a sharp, thrumming synth line and horns plucked straight from the eighties.
Even tracks that seem to stray from the topic at hand still zing, particularly “Me and My Husband,” a rollicking, infectiously catchy tune that practically drips with sarcasm. The song is emblematic of “Be The Cowboy”’s refreshing proclivity for poppier sounds juxtaposed with Mitski’s emotionally dense lyrics. There is catharsis to be found in Mitski’s music, but here that journey to relief is aided by more creatively arranged, sonically upbeat tracks. For once, the tears that so often come with Mitski’s songs are accompanied by the urge to blare this album at top volume and dance freely in your bedroom.
With every album she releases, Mitski appears to move towards a greater understanding of herself and the themes for which she’s composing, and “Be The Cowboy” is no exception. Mitski has once again delivered a sensational record that entertains as much as it wounds, bringing joy to the process of unpacking emotional baggage and fuming over lost love. It is transformative in every sense of the word, the musical equivalent of trading a restrictive skirt for cowboy dungarees — it is a liberation. “Be The Cowboy” encourages its listeners to tap into their inner gunblazer and find that swaggering confidence, that even-keeled courage, even when they feel like wailing on the floor and screaming “nobody.” In a world that sometimes feels like a spaghetti western standoff gone wrong, there is relish in something as simple as walking into the sunset with one’s head held high and eyes bright with tears.