Album Review: Mitski – Be The Cowboy

‘Optimistic loneliness’: the phrase that comes to mind in an attempt to describe indie-rocker Mitski‘s fifth album, Be The Cowboy. Whilst this seems dichotomous, it manages to present the varying scenarios of loneliness whilst exploring its various manifestations. Considering the year the singer has had, it only seems fitting that such a theme would be the undercurrent of this album; after the release of her critically acclaimed album Puberty 2 in 2016, Miyawaki has toured extensively over the past two years, including a sixteen-date tour supporting pop megastar Lorde.

mitski - be the cowboy artwork

However, whilst Mitski is aware of these privileged opportunities, she is quick to highlight the valid isolation that comes with it. In an interview with GQ, the singer describes her experience of touring as being on the ‘fringes of society’, citing stability such as having ‘a place to live’ and ‘shit to complain about’ being the thing she lacked.  Yet, it seems loneliness is something that Mitski has been accustomed to from a young age – the singer’s childhood was coloured with extensive travelling and moving (Miyawaki was born in Japan, schooled in Turkey and college-educated in New York) and therefore attributes this factor to her inability to form friendships.

Interestingly, Be The Cowboy isn’t autobiographical. Whilst the subject is familiar to Mitski, the songs on the album are a narrative of the character, the ‘Cowboy’. The album’s opening and most heart-wrenching track, ‘Geyser’, sees a woman unable to hold in the emotions that come with changing your life for a new lover, something that Mitski believes is particularly solitary as a woman. More playfully candid tracks such as ‘Nobody’ and ‘Me and My Husband’ exemplify more traditional forms of loneliness, such as the humdrum of stereotypical suburban wifehood and being alone in a new city. Even the production and album title are homages to loneliness; together with long-term producer Patrick Hyland, the pair returned to the same recurring image of “someone alone on a stage, singing solo with a single spotlight trained on them in an otherwise dark room. For most of the tracks, we didn’t layer the vocals with doubles or harmonies, to achieve that ‘person singing alone on stage’ atmosphere.”

Furthermore, the ‘cowboy’ is supposedly reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, the figure of empowerment, independence and effortless badassery. Describing her daily self as the ‘quintessential Asian woman’ (a group often stereotyped as being submissive and docile, and Mitski herself is half-Japanese), she hopes the character will allow her and women on the whole to channel this independence and careless heroism. Musically this album does just that as the album’s arguably most harmonically experimental track ‘A Horse Named Cold Air’, a harrowing yet calming number, channels this empowered isolation through the use of unexpected dissonance and melodic resolution.

The final track epitomises this article’s opening phrase. ‘Two Slow Dancers’’ bittersweet nostalgia focuses on two old lovers, momentarily rekindling a connection in their school gymnasium knowing they must part and return to their own lives. The opening and closing synth motif is quietly stunning, adorning the solo spotlight imagery Mitski has worked hard to project. Whilst this may not be the most overt victory for our cowboy, we can be rest assured that she has won; despite this album’s supposed loneliness, our Cowboy’s music has helped her make many friends along the way.