Mitski makes music about inexpressible emotions—urgent, intimate dispatches that seem to come from her very soul. At least, that’s how many, including this writer, have characterized her past work. And there’s something romantic about the idea that someone has captured the secret fears and desires that perch on the edge of one’s bed at night and transformed them into song. It makes the listener feel like they’re not alone. But what about the singer?
Mitski’s last album, 2016’s Puberty 2, made her an indie darling, launching her from DIY performance spaces to the pages of The New York Times with a thousand lonely hotel rooms in between. On her new album, Be The Cowboy, Mitski puts a wall between herself and her newfound fame by channeling the character of what she has called “a very controlled, icy, repressed woman who is starting to unravel,” using that persona as a conduit to understand, and sing about, her strange new reality. Sometimes the line between character and artist becomes blurry—“I need somebody to remember my name / After all that I can do for them is done,” she sings on “Remember My Name”—but I imagine that’s kind of the point.
Be The Cowboy opens with the emotional sturm und drang Mitski fans crave on “Geyser,” a passionate declaration of love that swells into a crashing wave of droning synthesizer and electric guitar. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” begins with the same hammering drum machine whose anxious thrum kept time on Puberty 2 opener “Happy,” before breaking out into something unexpected—a peppy, danceable beat, punctuated with horns and cheesy ’80s guitar. Follow that with the heavy-handed, Ben Folds-esque piano of “Old Friend,” and, three songs in, Be The Cowboy is already showing sides of Mitski’s musical persona we haven’t seen before—especially not with the mirror sheen producer Patrick Hyland puts on the album. That delightfully plunky piano returns on “Me And My Husband,” a song so satirically tight-assed that you can picture its narrator smugly reciting the lyrics to her companions at yoga, and “Washing Machine Heart” brings back the drum machine for a deranged domestic ballad with a pleasantly disorienting beat.
The strongest of these experiments has to be album highlight “Nobody,” a ’70s-style disco number (think hi-hats and quickly strumming guitar) with the free-spirited allure of a Jean-Luc Godard movie before he got all Communist and self-serious. “My god, I’m so lonely / So I open the window / To hear sounds of people,” Mitski sings, a pathetic confession made winkingly ironic by the music practically twirling umbrellas behind her. It’s the sound of a woman grinning through clenched teeth, an image that surfaces throughout the album in tense, twitchy lyrics that contrast beautifully with the lovely, dynamic snippets of melody that drift in and out of each song. But although she’s uptight and sometimes even mean, the persona Mitski plays with on Be The Cowboy also has a charming innocence about her, longing for revenge on her enemies and “one good movie kiss.”
Although Be The Cowboy sees Mitski fully transformed from her lo-fi beginnings in terms of production, her post-Pixies guitar-rock tendencies still come through strong, albeit now more lush and kaleidoscopic than buzzing and raucous. Her preferred space-filler is layers of airy synthesizers, which dominate the back third of the album, but even this rule has exceptions. While “Pink In The Night” and “Two Slow Dancers” are droning torch songs worthy of a David Lynch movie, “A Horse Named Cold Air” is all high drama and pointedly empty space. The cleaned-up production does highlight the eccentric, even incomplete, nature of some of her compositions—Mitski’s only ever written songs with traditional verse-chorus-verse structure when she’s felt like it—but as far as problems go, wishing that all of the songs on Be The Cowboy were three-minute pop masterpieces instead of just some of them is a good one to have.