Mitski Dazzles On Her New Album, Be the Cowboy
Mitski's fifth album, Be the Cowboy, starts out with an attack on the ear. The opening note of "Geyser" is a pinging sound that grabs your attention and allows Mitski to give you an important message. "You're my number one" Mitski sings softly against the lo-fi glitchy background that you can't help but feel a little intimacy. The beginning of "Geyser" presents one theme of love and exclusivity for the listener but suddenly changes to more aptly segue the rest of the album. As the instrumentation becomes heavier Mitski's lyrical mood changes as she sings "I will be the one you need/I can't live without you." Much of Be the Cowboy revolves around these themes of lonesome desperation. Quite sad but it leads to great music so it’s a win for us
Mitski is a Japanese-American rock singer who has been gaining major traction in the past couple of years (see Iggy Pop's praise). Her last album, Puberty 2, covered similar themes of adolescence and such but what grabbed me about it was her sound. A song like "Your Best American Girl" is sonically beautiful and a great carrier for themes and struggles that asian-americans face. Be the Cowboy is more personal as it feels like it is truly about internal struggles that Mitski faces but sticks with the groundbreaking indie-rock. The album overall sounds a little muted, somber even, but listening closer unveils layers of great rock sounds created by a myriad of instrumentation.
On "Why Didn't You Stop Me" the instrumentation varies from a rough and tough electric guitar to slight alterations in her voice to god knows what makes the sound during the bridge (horns maybe). Though the instrumentation and vocal performance is great, it kind of overcasts the emotions of Mitski's lyrics. This might be intentional as there are clearly songs that are meant to be a gut punch (ie. "Geyser", "Old Friend", "Nobody"). For the most part there is a good enough balance between instrumentation and emotional impact. The clapping into drum machine on "Washing Machine Heart" is another example of the true blend of indie and rock. Clapping and whistling etc. to create an organic feel is past a cliche in indie and pop music (ie. "Moves Like Jagger", "Young Folks") but Mitski's uses it to lead into a very inorganic sound (coupled with the imagery of a washing machine) subverting our expectations in a sense. While she dazzles with very loud and quiet electronic sounds she is also able to incorporate very simple rock sounds effectively. In the crowning jewel of the album, "Nobody," the piano chords in the background could be played by a five year old but it is just a small section in the entire ensemble. "Me and My Husband" also contains simple chords but mixes in minor chords where there wouldn't be (tricking our ears). Some would say that this simplicity is a flaw but she incorporates them so well into the overall sound that it doesn't seem dummed down or anything.
read more about "Nobody" on our mid-year list
Along with the great instrumentation Mitski's songwriting is also fantastic throughout the entire album. The album is thematically pretty homogeneous as it is mainly about Mitski's struggles with loneliness and general human interaction but the different stories she tells within that emotional space is impressive. "A Pearl" is a great example of this as the chorus, "I fell in love with a War/Nobody told me it ended/It left a pearl in my head" is dripping in metaphors that make the topic more interesting ten time over. "Washing Machine Heart" is another example of Mitski masking her struggles with metaphor. The opening line "Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart" is another gut punch masked with great lyrics. Other songs are more literal, but hit just as hard. The latter half of "Nobody" where the title is just repeated over and over until oblivion, hurts every time. On "Lonesome Love" Mitski is even more explicit as she sings "Nobody butters me up like you/Nobody f*cks me like me" and the song ends with the refrain "Why am I lonely for lonesome love." On the previous two tracks the instrumentation seems too upbeat and doesn't really match the mood. Ahah! this is another coping mechanism for Mitski. The ultimate no BS display of emotion is on the album closer "Two Slow Dancers." The song starts with a very Kanye-esque electronic baseline before she destroys you. "It would be a hundred times easier if we were young again." In that one lyric, Mitski conveys so many emotions of loss, regret, longing, sadness etc. The song then brings in some gorgeous strings as she sings "To think that we could stay the same/But we are two slow dancers last ones out." The “last ones out shows” her proclivity towards the ease of childish love and her ensuing loneliness in the present.
Be the Cowboy is seemingly about one singular thing; loneliness. However, it is hard to surmise the exact story that brought about this loneliness as many songs are smothered with metaphor (still good songwriting) or are somewhat generic in context. This is a breath of fresh air as many artists use their stories as clout to stir up controversy and get more listeners. Mitski's troubles are her own but she channels them beautifully into her music. Digging a little deeper, we could infer the the title, Be the Cowboy, is in reference to the same themes that are on "Your American Girl" but taken to their conclusion. As a Japanese-american Mistki may feel like she has to play 'american' or 'be the cowboy' in order fit in, and when she doesn't might be the root of her loneliness. No matter what the subject matter stems from, Be the Cowboy is a great showing of creativity with sounds and lyrics in the rock space that will hopefully keep Mitski's momentum going.
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