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Mitski - Be the Cowboy Music Album Reviews

The fifth album from the singular songwriter is her greatest to date. From the music to her emotions, Mitski has the power to make the complex seem dazzlingly clear.

Before picking up a guitar for 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski Miyawaki’s instrument of choice was the piano. She played it on the two records she created as a studio composition major in college, where she was backed by a gigantic student orchestra. Once again behind the keys, her fifth album, Be the Cowboy, displays Mitski’s knowledge of song structure and her ability to bend any idea to her will. These 14 complex compositions warp the pop textbook into something more knotty and internal, creating a unique zone where the 27-year-old thrives: She’s never sounded so large, even in the record’s quietest moments.

In this way, Be the Cowboy radiates assurance. Whereas 2016’s Puberty 2 was drenched in distortion, here, Mitski and her longtime producer Patrick Hyland avoid the sound almost entirely. When the fuzzy drone does appear, it is purposeful, like on opener “Geyser,” where it interrupts a haze of organ and strings to announce a violent eruption of desire. Without the guitar and her typically doubled vocals, she allows herself to crack; for the first time, she seems fully content with the vulnerability.

Mitski is a peerless excavator of her own anxieties, infatuations, and ugliness and she examines them all through the lens of fame. She appears on the record’s cover wearing a white floral swim cap and heavy lipstick, a pair of tweezers honing in on a stray eyelash, symbolizing both a desire for control and the acknowledgment that such concerns can ultimately be futile. At the end of the video for the disco-pop banger “Nobody,” the camera pans back to reveal her to be another performer under the studio lights. She’s candid about how making music can be as depleting as it is fulfilling. “I gave too much of my heart tonight/Can you come to where I’m staying and/Make some extra love/That I can save till to tomorrow’s show,” she pleads on the jagged “Remember My Name.”

And with fame comes a fantastic loneliness. Be the Cowboy delves into that harrowing moment in the vanity mirror when you realize what others see does not match your reflection. How can they think you are so big when you are actually so small? The solitude inside “Nobody” feels so comically inescapable that it is almost worth celebrating; she rolls the word around in her mouth, relishing the universe of possibilities within its emptiness. On the jangly and vaguely country “Lonesome Love,” Mitski slyly delivers the record’s heaviest hitting line: “Cause nobody butters me up like you, and/Nobody fucks me like me.” Even if Mitski channels an exaggerated aspect of herself or performing a character—in interviews she has described a woman whose icy exterior hides the vast cosmos of her internal passions—she commits herself to capture the truth of each role.

But these complexities only emphasize the point Mitski returns to on each of her records: love is manifold. Romance is all consuming and breathtaking; intimacy can be a cycle of toxic stillness. Be the Cowboy is a definitive statement on the myth of perfection. She can stretch to the heavens and sink into the ground. She can be everything at once, again and again. “I thought I’d traveled a long way/But I had circled the same old sin,” she gravely bellows on “A Horse Named Cold Air.” To the two elderly subjects of the devastating closer “Two Slow Dancers,” all those complexities can be relieved beneath the glow of a disco ball. In the album’s last breaths, the spotlight slowly fades from Mitski. She might be exhausted, but she is insatiable.

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