Critical Voices: Mitski, <i>Be the Cowboy</i>

Critical Voices: Mitski, Be the Cowboy

By:
08/22/2018

You will get chills almost immediately after you press play on Mitski’s new album, Be the Cowboy. Her haunting, harrowing voice sings, “You’re my number one / You’re the one I want” in the opening song, “Geyser,” which swells into fully formed instrumentals and profound emotional depth. It’s quite a song to start an album with, and it sets the stage for what’s to come: music that is personal and perfect.

Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s best work yet, which is saying something, because her previous albums are astounding. Her brand of indie rock is so passionate and pure, which holds true throughout her discography. The album is cohesive; in fact, her entire discography is cohesive, yet it’s anything but monotonous.

Every song except for the last—“Two Slow Dancers”—is abruptly short. But it’s this shortness that allows her to take advantage of her lyrical and instrumental repetition. Things repeat without becoming redundant. And the listener wants more, but in this lack of fulfillment, Mitski does exactly what she came to do. She leaves the listener wanting more, just like she sings about her own longing for greater love. We’re in the same boat, and we’re all sinking.

In addition to “Geyser,” “Me and My Husband” is another standout song on the album, which diverges from the standard instrumentals of other songs in its use of key-banging piano and a generally more upbeat feel. It reflects Mitski’s ability to maintain a consistent sound without her becoming one of those artists whose songs all sound the same.

The best part of Be the Cowboy, if you could even pick a best part, is “Nobody,” one of the pre-released singles. It starts with Mitski’s smooth, soft voice against a cymbal rhythm and basic piano chords in the background, until it hits the chorus, which could be mistaken for a jazzy musical piece. Mitski has a knack for lyrics that can simultaneously mesh and collide with the sound of the song itself. Toward the end of the song, she transitions keys into a more melancholy feeling, until it completely dissolves into haunting repetitions, like a broken record, which feels intentional. “And I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me,” she coos, lines later going into her chorus of nobodies. It’s fun on the surface, but on the inside it’s painful and, frankly, terrifying.

It all ends with “Two Slow Dancers,” a piece of music that encapsulates and emanates beauty and sadness and finality and so much more than words can describe. It’s a truly radiant finale to an incredible album, and even though it’s by far the longest song on Be the Cowboy, it somehow feels like the shortest. Maybe because it feels like there needs to be more. Maybe Mitski wants the listener to feel some of that sadness that she clings to in her brutal and breathtaking lyrics.

This album is only 32 minutes long, but each one of the 14 songs packs enough emotion for a lifetime. You should be wailing by the end of Be the Cowboy. It would be hard for any human being with working tear ducts to respond any other way.

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Claire Goldberg is the Voice's former editoral board chair and halftime leisure editor. She "says a lot of funny things," according to Emma Francois.


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