Mitski delivers a dark, confident sound on “Be the Cowboy”

Evan Balikos/Staff Writer

Last October, I was surprised when Lorde announced Mitski as part of her lineup for her “North American Dance” tour. Like Lorde, Mitski thrives on the idea of pop subversion, and her fifth album, “Be The Cowboy,” is an amalgamation of all of her musical talents. On it, she reinvents her sound with clean production while keeping her signature dark poetry at play.  

The album’s second single, “Nobody,” is a funky Franz Ferdinand-era jam that encapsulates feelings of loneliness, anxiety and the need for affection. Written after a mental breakdown, releasing a song like this was bold, but to put it over a disco-themed beat, complete with fluttering hi-hats and occasional hand-claps, could rightfully be deemed absurd.

The chorus for this song is “Nobody, nobody, nobody/ Nobody, nobody/ Ooh, nobody, nobody, nobody,” which Mitski sings despondently as rousing guitar and percussion create a veil of joy.

But Mitski is strongest when she dances in darkness, allowing her disruptive lyrics to shine brightly like a disco ball. “Be The Cowboy” convinces us that she has the swagger and bravery of the aforementioned figure of the West. In fact, the album’s title is taken from a phrase she would utter before performing: “Be the cowboy you wish to see in the world.” On “Lonesome Love,” the strumming cowboy confessional, the singer rides calm and collected before abruptly asking herself why she craves this type of unsatisfying intimacy.

Some songs may not be about her memories of love at all, since Mitski has created her own character for this album: an impassioned but stifled woman convinced that performance is more important than emotion when presenting herself to the world. This character is evident on “Me and My Husband”: a rollicking pop-piano number where a wife takes center-stage and criticizes the safety of her marriage.

The first verse of the song contains despair-tinged lyrics such as “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute/ And then I’ll be nothing forever,” before launching into a damning chorus, “But Me and My Husband/ We are doing better.”

This character is a clever tool that Mitski uses on the album. We never really know who or what the song is about, but the author writes with the pen of a lover, a loner and a fighter all in one.

When she first began as a musician, Mitski used her simplistic piano compositions and song structure to create music that ranged from solemn to frolicking to eerie. “Be The Cowboy” sees her doing all three while Patrick Hyland’s production creates the groundwork for a mountain of crumbling melody.

The album’s arrangements even satirize the pop formula, such as “Washing Machine Heart,” which starts with school-yard taps and claps similar to the ones on “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. Mitski also infuses “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” with punchy percussion and synthesizer riffs that deflect the joy of a song like “Green Light” by Lorde.  

Fans eager for the return of Mitski’s grungy side will be happy when they hear “A Pearl.” Its chorus dominates and slams the listener with power chords and cymbals before unraveling into an epic guitar solo.

Mitski sings in the chorus, “It’s just that I fell in love with a war,” lyrics that are so poetic that their future inscription on the arms and legs of punk rockers is guaranteed.

Where last year’s “Puberty 2” wrestled with angst, restlessness and depression, “Be The Cowboy” combines those feelings into a mature character that is half of Mitski and half of humanity. The album features some of the songwriter’s best work yet, like the cryptic “A Horse Named Cold Air,” or the prom-night synth ballad, “Pink in the Night.” The longest song on the track list, “Two Slow Dancers,” is also the album’s closer. Here is where Mitski earns the title of storyteller as she narrates the tale of two old lovers reuniting for one last dance.

“To think that we could stay the same/ But we’re two slow dancers, last ones out,” she croons softly while electric keys waltz around her.

“Be The Cowboy” allows Mitski to delve into character and concept like never before. She reminds us that we all want and need something to fill our emptiness, and much like her lyrics, what we need may not be tangible at all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

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