Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s third full length, and it is a departure from Puberty 2, the album that gained her enough attention to share the stage with Pixies and Lorde. Instead of the confessional approach of that album, here she wears one or more personas as she sorts through their hurtful pasts.
One of Mitski’s strong points has been bobbing where listeners expect a weave. Throwing in a gutsy chord that doesn’t resolve as expected, or a measure that’s shorter than the ones around it, or a melody note that’s unsettling against the underlying chord (or all three at the same time). She truly exceeds all expectations on Be the Cowboy with her freewheeling approach. One only gets one chance to hear an album like this for the first time. Set time aside to let it toss you around like a rodeo bull. In other words, be the cowboy.
The production is also effective in supporting the theme setup by the poignant lyrics and detached persona. There are elements of synthpop and electronica in places. However, these elements are not completely integrated into the other elements. This creates an uneasy effect where superficial assessments fail to deliver the full story. Much like an unhappy marriage, where a couple has a great Facebook timeline, but an angst-ridden family life.
“Washing Machine Heart” is where all the disparate elements come together into one track. The synth grind, the strange melodies, and odd chord choices all serve the message of the lyrics: “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart. Baby, bang it up inside.” The elements add up to a driving and harsh effect. However, Kayleigh Hughes over at Consequence of Sound chooses a different moment as it’s finest:
The gem that glitters brightest to me — which may be different than the one that calls most to you — is Be the Cowboy’s fourth track, “A Pearl”, in which Mitski starts soft and apologetic in acknowledging that, yes, she is distant, and, yes, she knows it hurts her lover. She’s sorry, but — and this is where I fall totally apart — the music swells and she says, nearly cries, “It’s just that I fell in love with a war/ And nobody told me it ended/ And it left a pearl in my head/ And I roll it around/ Every night, just to watch it glow. Every night, baby, that’s where I go.” I’ve walked around for days with goosebumps on my skin and Mitski’s pearl in my head, contemplating all the wars I’ve fallen in love with and wondering if I’ve ever had the daring to sign a peace treaty, if all that unfinished business is weighing me down and pulling my focus in ways I never knew. “A Pearl” utterly consumed me. It’s an epic in two minutes, and it’s one of the best songs of the year.
Hard to top that, so I’ll use a video to segue into my thoughts on who may most enjoy Be the Cowboy:
Mitski is part of a group of younger singer-songwriter who have an indie rock/pop/singer-songwriter meld (the emphasis among the three flavors varies for each project: Angel Olsen, Speedy Ortiz, Wye Oak, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Torres, (or ramping up the stadium appeal), Florence & the Machine. All of these acts in various ways are interpreting singer-songwriter material through a post-2000s indie aesthetic. For the 25-34 crowd, this may sound natural and how music is supposed to sound. For those in the 35-44 crowd, Mitski & Co. will be a interestingly novel take on the more underground sounds of the last decade.
Those old enough to have been following St. Vincent through her career will want to pick up Be the Cowboy. Mitski’s voice has a similar delivery–especially circa Strange Mercy. Sharon Van Etten fans will also appreciate the dark lens through which Mitski views the trials of love. In some ways, the melding of strong, personality-driven lyrics being attached to indie rock/pop has a beginning in Death Cab for Cutie (though they were in turn inspired by others, of course). This new batch of alternative singer/songwriters will likely appeal to any remaining Death Cab die hards.
Lastly, younger fans of Vagabon will gravitate especially toward some of the lo-fi elements found here.