Mitski — Be the Cowboy (2018) | Album Review

On her fifth studio album, Mitski proves that she’s one of the best songwriters out there, offering elegant, rich, and thought-provoking songs.

Mitski’s music has been personal: on her last album, she compares to quarter-life crisis to a second puberty, uncovering her life bits by bits. On that album, she takes the crown for the bleakest song titled “Happy”, comes into terms with her identity, deals with depression, love, and loss. Back then, her music has already hinted at something more grandeur, more abstract with her intelligent similes and metaphors pervading the lyrics. This time around, she takes it to a new height, discussing more conceptual themes while still keeping everything personal, unease, and unpredictable.

On the opener and also the lead single, “Geyser”, Mitski sings about her relationship with music. Similar to Puberty 2’s opener, “Happy”, “Geyser” begins with an ominous sound. Unlike “Happy”, however, its brighter moments are truly lifting. The attention to detail is shown here: the same stanza is repeated three times, albeit with slightly different lyrics each time. As the instrumentals slowly build up to the climax of the song, her relationship with music also progresses. In the first time, she declares that music is what she wants, but it keeps her from fulfilling other needs:

“You’re my number one
You’re the one I want
And you’ve turned down
Every hand that has beckoned me to come”

When she repeats this stanza, however, she changes “you’ve turned down” to “I’ve turned down”, showing that she’s taking control of her life and is comfortable with this relationship and what it entails. She repeats it once more, this time sounding assured and ready for what to come:

“‘Cause you’re the one I got
You’re the one I got
So I’ll keep turning down the hands
That beckon me to come”

Right after that, the song hits its climax, explosive like the titular image of the geyser: music has given her strength. Even on that high, however, she realizes that sometimes pursuing music isn’t good for her. That’s when the song goes to another high, marked by a quick keyboard run, as she defiantly declares that despite all the hardship, she will continue doing music since it needs her as much as she needs it:

“But I will be the one you need
The way I can’t be without you
I will be the one you need
I just can’t be without you”

By only keeping the absolute necessities, in less than two and a half minutes, Mitski manages to take us on a journey through her mind. That’s not an easy feat to achieve, but she manages to do it eleven more times on the album: except for two songs, all the other tracks are around two minutes long. While these eleven song may be less elaborate musical wise, they all flesh out a full story, with characterization and brilliant twists. On the equally catchy “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”, she plays the role of a self-centred lover who blames her partner for the downfall of their relationship, still obsessing over an idealized love that’s never real. The brass sections sound just as delightful as the illusion she keeps chasing, only to stop suddenly and leave behind a droning sound when the song ends.

The rest of Be the Cowboy has the same depth in its lyrics. The lyrics of “A Pearl” seems like a plot for a “Twilight Zone” episode, where a toxic relationship (as Mitski added, to oneself, or to another person) lasted so long that it became part of one’s identity. Even though the protagonist is in a great relationship with somebody else who loves her and wants to take care of her, she still can’t open up about the toxicity in her and instead keep it with her like a precious pearl she cherishes. Even though it’s not even two minutes long, “Lonesome Love” packs some powerful one-liners about trying to “win” a symbolic war with an ex-lover, only to face a catastrophic defeat: “Walk up in my high heels, all high and mighty, and you say, “Hello”, and I lose”; “Nobody fucks me like me”. “Remember My Name” probably has the sharpest way to describe one’s dissatisfaction: “Just how many stars will I need to hang around me to finally call it heaven?” Meanwhile, “Washing Machine Heart” also makes use of vocal delivery for characterization, done with such precision that the controlling protagonist starts to seem manic.

She wastes no time on the longer tracks either, with the disco-tinged “Nobody” as the album’s centerpiece and the haunting “Two Slow Dancers” closing the album. “Nobody” deals with alienation and estrangment, as Mitski embarks on a journey to find love. The song takes on a somewhat surrealist approach, which is best exemplified by the second verse:

“Venus, planet of love
Was destroyed by global warming
Did its people want too much too?
Did its people want too much?”

The first two lines points out an irony: even though considered the planet of love, as associated with the Roman Goddess, Venus has a crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere 90 times as thick as Earth’s, and hence its temperatures reach 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) at its surface, making it the hottest planet in the Solar System. She starts wondering if its inhabitants (NASA suggests the planet was once habitable) were to blame: “Did its people want too much too?” However, she sings this line once more, omitting the word “too”, as if fearing that Earthlings, or at least herself, will face the same consequences. Still, despite the fear that her desire will do no good for her, she laments that even though she has changed herself multiple times, she still cannot find love:

“I’ve been big and small and
Big and small and
Big and small again
And still nobody wants me
Still nobody wants me”

In the song, Mitski also shows us the correct way to do a repetitive chorus: she repeats the titular three syllables over and over again, making skips in the melody as if she’s running around looking for the one, or just someone at all. She repeats the chorus multiple times with modulation, as if time is running out for her and she’s getting more frantic with each repetition. And how can she not get frantic? The effervescent disco groove keeps playing, like the bright world out there that will move on regardless, leaving her behind with loneliness. However, as the song closes, she slows down as if she has come to terms with her situation and will move on instead of keeping chasing after nobody. The disco groove also comes to an end, like her worries are all in her head and the brisk world is welcoming her.

At almost four minutes long, “Two Slow Dancers” seems ridiculously long compared to the tracks, but as the song unveals, it starts to make sense. The song tells the story of two old lovers reuniting and reflecting on their past in the setting of a school gymnasium. About the narration of the song, Mitski elaborated: “They used to have something together that is no longer there and they’re trying to relive it in a dance, knowing that they’ll have to go home and go back to their lives.” The song starts out with the pair remarking on the setting and their relationship:

“It’s funny how they’re all the same
It’s funny how you always remember
And we’ve both done it all a hundred times before
It’s funny how I still forgot”

The setting is still the same, and their relationship is still the same. They quickly come to the realization, however, that they cannot get it back, or move on:

“It would be a hundred times easier
If we were young again
But as it is
And it is”

The second verse reveals the difficult awareness that their lives are coming to an end, marked by the wrinkles on their skin, as the couple laments their short lives:

“And the ground has been slowly pulling us back down
You see it on both our skin
We get a few years and then it wants us back”

Mitki repeats the line “Two slow dancers, last ones out” over and over: the dancers know that they are the last ones dancing, and they will eventually need to leave. But the line keeps repeating, as if to prolong their dance to eternity. Just like that, Mitski conveys these complexities with such simplicity.

Rating: A

Essential tracks: “Geyser”, “Nobody”, “Two Slow Dancers”

For detailed grading scale, see here.

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