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Album Review: Mitski's 'Be The Cowboy'

Mitski Miyawaki’s nihilistic witticisms and words of doubt can lay waste to anything remotely joyous, yet her resounding voice is capable of assuaging any pent-up affliction dwelling within. Not many musicians are capable of operating such a stark dichotomy, but this is the very reason as to why Mitski is a once-in-a-blue-moon type of talent. Though her music looms with a forlorn mysteriousness, her presence seeps with conflicting emotional transparency and sensitivity. So when she sings “It would be a hundred times easier / If we were young again...and the ground has been slowly pulling us back down/ You see it on both our skin…” on “Two Slow Dancers,” the closing track from her latest album Be The Cowboy, one can’t help but sit in severance, pondering the ephemerality of aspirations and dreams. A sentiment vigorously confronted across Be The Cowboy, Mitski finds herself tirelessly mending an obscure breach left by doubt and the fulfillment of musical aspirations. While her 2016 breakthrough Puberty 2, merely hinted at this suspension between the fruition of dreams and uncertainty of the future, Mitski’s latest grabs this purgatory by the horns and spins it into what is undoubtedly her most poetically affecting and musically ambitious display to date. Many have cried alongside Mitski’s resonant sentiments of universal human emotion and contemporary sadness since the release of Puberty 2, and while she wails over much of the same on Be The Cowboy, her pained expressions point further inward while offering a modicum of hope. Sonically, Be The Cowboy demonstrates Mitski’s willingness to explore beyond the parameters of power pop and freak-folk as she combines elements of dream pop, grunge, noise, ballroom, and even funk. Not a single track here sound alike. Though her back catalog manages to invoke a visceral melancholy with modest lo-fi production, the sweeping, far more inclusive arrangements of Mitski’s latest endeavor enhances her ability to keep listeners on the edge of the seat and reaching for the box of tissues. With the booming opening track and lead single “Geyser,” wispy organ melts into a booming synth bass, which alongside a growling guitar roar, broods beneath Mitski crystal clear voice with vehemence like a subtle breeze swelling into frigid wind. This deluge of noise bursts open into the stratosphere with a calamitous string section and soars to even greater heights with Mitski’s strikingly painted vocals: “Though I'm a geyser/ Feel it bubbling from below/ Hear it call, hear it call/ Hear it call to me Constantly/ And hear the harmony/ Only when it's harming me/ It's not real, it's not real/ It's not real enough.” Though the track runs a brisk course under three minutes (which is the case for most of the album), Mitski characteristically delivers a wallop of emotion at the drop of a dime, leaving the listener devastated and unprepared for what’s to follow. Experimenting further with jittery drum and bass as she did seldom on her last record, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” is the first of several “dance” numbers featured on Be The Cowboy. Though it swims in regret and ambiguity, “I know that I ended it/ but why didn’t chase after me,” the track’s sonic exuberance billows at the sound of piercing horn sections. On the incandescent “Pink in the Night,” Mitski’s growth as an artist is on full display. Her pacifying voice (which somehow has gotten better) has emerged from the shadows like a beaming light of hope, serenading over shimmering keyboards, thunderous yet steady percussion and shadowy reverb emanating from her magnetic guitar—it’s expansive, atmospheric and quite possibly the most cinematic moment of the entire album. Delving into a realm tethered between contemporary folk and delicate piano balladry tracks like “Old Friend” and “Lonesome Love” are musically minimal, but give way to lyrical revelation and boldness: “I’ll call you / to see you again / so I can win and this can finally end..nobody butters me up like you/ and nobody fucks me like me...why am lonely for lonesome love,” reflects Mitski on “Lonesome Love.”

As Mitski imbues every line she utters with nerve, vitriol, and clarity, Be The Cowboy presents the artist as quite the soul-crushing poet—one who ruthlessly wields her words like a branding iron searing images into listeners’ minds—images that burn long after a song has ended. Take the opening lines from the undaunted “Washing Machine Heart” for instance, “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart/ Baby, bang it up inside,” or these from the mournful “Old Friend,” “You’re growing tired of me / You love me so hard and I still can’t sleep/ You’re growing tired of me/ and all the things I don’t talk about,” these are devastating words, as the delivery simultaneously captures the anxieties of getting old and the fear of lost ambition. If Mitski’s prior release was her breakthrough into the mainstream, then Be The Cowboy is the tour de force project to solidify her place among the most moving musicians today. Though it’s a record perspiring uncertainty and the fear of becoming stagnant, Be The Cowboy is Mitski’s most personal and confrontational thus far. It’s violently poignant and the mark of an artist who’s barely tapped into her singularity.

THE 405 RATING 9/10


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