Buckle up: this is the one that almost got away from me, and it’s my favorite non-metal album of the year.
The songs my friends had played me off of Mitski’s previous album Puberty 2 were gauzy, moody tracks that I didn’t hear in the right context to let them really speak to me, so I probably wouldn’t have made time to listen to Be The Cowboy had my housemate not popped it on in the car in late August while we were moving. Perhaps if I’d seen Mitski supporting Lorde and Run The Jewels when they came through Boston earlier this year, I would have seen Be The Cowboy coming, but as it happened, I was absolutely floored. In its emotional range, its fearlessly unconventional song structures, and its pinpoint-precise instrumental choices, Be The Cowboy is a masterpiece and put Mitski on the map for me in a big way.
On this album, Mitski is a forlorn piano-vocal jazz singer, a pissed-off punk with a weaponized synth, a desperate rock-balladeer, a dry-humored acoustic singer-songwriter, a chamber goth wallowing in atmosphere and melancholy, a confessional pop singer, and more, often more than one in a single track, all of these voices in unison, all of them facets of a single experience. This is the basest level on which Mitski’s craft is masterful, and it would be enough to make this a great album, but consider that there are only two songs on this fourteen-track album that crack the three-minute mark. Even with this panoply of voices to showcase, Mitski has crafted a perfectly airtight, all-killer-no-filler experience. Again, this would be more than enough to make a great album, but Mitski’s not content with creating a display piece or a technical showcase. Mitski’s not content with making the easy choices. Mitski presents Be The Cowboy not as a work of aloof, untouchable genius, but as a product of messy, heartache-laden process. She does this by treating scraps of studio sound, digital aberrations, and non-musical noise with just as much care, and just as keen of an artistic eye, as the songs themselves.
No track on the album showcases this better than opener “Geyser”, the first couple seconds of which are so dramatic and so effective that I’m going to treat them like a spoiler because you should just go listen to the track instead of reading about it: “Geyser” blasts into being, mixed so loud that it shocks you into dialing down the volume, but just as you do, Mitski ripostes and dials down the volume herself, forcing you to turn the track back up just in time to meet with a screeching second of audio tearing in the middle of a line. Who does that?! This is psychological warfare of the kind that every edgy metal band aspires to but never reaches (Car Bomb is the only exception that jumps to mind). In the subsequent two minutes, “Geyser” encapsulates everything I loved about the dark, emotive alternative rock and metal of the early ’00’s, heavy and driving and suddenly soaring into major key as the lyrics take a corresponding dive into desperation, all with a cathartic finish that lets you exhale the breath you didn’t know you were holding. Then, as though into a new room in a museum exhibit, pulsing bass ushers you into “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”, where blaring guitars offset twee synths, which then combine when catalyzed by the horns section in a delightful bit of sonic alchemy in the track’s second half . Another noise moment lurks at the very end of “Old Friend”, which, like someone we used to trust, lures us close with its gentle demeanor but keeps us off-balance at all times. The noise that crescendos at the very end of the track is subtle, but does so much to fasten the track’s narrative of social control, of manufactured, artificial ease.
Speaking of manufactured ease, Mitski’s lyrics weave through weighty material on this album, speaking to struggles in and against interpersonal relationships, expectations to fall silent and submit to the systems of control that whittle away at us, isolation, our own conceptions of ourselves and others, and ultimately, the tension that comes from our need to impose our will on our environment or get swept away by time and weariness. Through it all, the album title commands us, and the psyche characterized in these fourteen tracks, to face these struggles with all the casual arrogance and lazy dominion of the mythical American cowboy. The spirit of the album itself tries, and tries, to reach this degree of smug detachment, and sometimes succeeds, only to find itself more bereft than ever of the comfort it so longs for. It’s a beautiful struggle to watch and partake in, and there’s something in it for anyone who feels pressure to thrive in the face of external and internal turmoil–and maybe just wants to dance it out.