A flat pitch and red screen introduce listeners to Mitski Miyawaki‘s cinematic ‘Be the Cowboy’. Suggesting not only a rebooted computer, but also a (semi-)novel, art-pop direction for the artist, the tone heralds the muted fervor that epitomizes Mitksi‘s fifth LP. While heavy guitar distortion has typified previous Mitski efforts, crisp guitar flourishes, soaring horns, and dazzling keys permeate a record that is at once dizzyingly groovy and starkly tender.
Following an unadorned verse, album-opener ‘Gesyer’ plunges into a gothic cacophony laced with piercing synths before unfurling to reveal a tantalizing, full-band sound that nods towards Destroyer‘s boisterous ‘Kaputt’ (2011). Listeners have moments to gather themselves before ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’, the first “buoyant” offering from ‘Be the Cowboy’, transmutes bedrooms into makeshift dance floors, its wistful lyrics thrown in sharp relief by infectious rhythms. As ‘Old Friend’ begins, the album deftly focuses one’s attention on Mitski‘s vocal delivery, her skittering voice entrancing while a piano, rather than guitar or bass, predominantly offers melodic support.
Indeed, Mitksi‘s return to keys throughout ‘Be the Cowboy’ does not merely prevent her guitar-driven sound from becoming stagnant, but rather proactively refines yet another element within her musical repertoire. Existing within a liminal space between electro-horror (‘Geyser’), techno-surf (‘Washing Machine Heart’), glittery stargaze (‘Nobody’), and chamber-pop (the Fionna Apple-esque ‘Me and My Husband’); however, guitar rock tunes are not wholly absent from ‘Be the Cowboy’, as ‘A Pearl’ features a blistering solo while ‘Remember My Name’ showcases the album’s heaviest refrain. As Miyawaki croons “I need something bigger than the sky / hold it in my arms and know it’s mine,” horns, guitars, and synths riff off one another, each feverishly vying for attention, each deserving it.
‘Nobody’ (and its sublime music video) is prime for a lip sync disco, its apocalyptic pop shimmies and haunting refrain evoking a STRFKR version of ‘Mr. Tillman’. (Can we please see a “Father John Mitski” collaboration/tour?) Wedged between the ethereal ‘A Horse Named Cold Air’ and the wistful ‘Blue Light’, the aforementioned ‘Washing Machine Heart’ forms an infectiously sticky trinity alongside ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’ and ‘Nobody’ while album-closer ‘Two Slow Dancers’ effortlessly recalls Angelo Badalamenti’s ‘Twin Peaks Theme’ as a final, well-placed flourish leaves dazed audiences reluctant to depart this immaculate, albeit (deceptively) brief, sonic experience.
Lyrically multifaceted, ‘Be the Cowboy’ finds bemused, sorrow-laden humor, gentle intimacy, and tenuous bliss. On ‘Lonesome Love’, Mitski (unsuccessfully) attempts to move past the song’s titular love in declaring, “I call you to see you again / so I can win and this can finally end / Spend an hour on my makeup to prove something / Walk up in my high heels / all high and mighty / and you say hello / and I lose” before lamenting, “’cause nobody butters me up like you, and / nobody fucks me like me.” Elsewhere, ‘Come into the Water’ feels like a hymnal, sacred in its reverence (“Do you want to be my baby? / Are you waiting to touch me?“) while ‘Pink in the Night’ projects utter adoration (“I could stare at your back all day“), likely inducing audiences to openly weep over its vulnerability and ultimate hesitation.
Whereas Puberty 2 remained largely an “indie rock” album despite electronic tinges, ‘Be the Cowboy’ shows Mitski is either a) redefining what “counts” within the loosely-defined genre, or b) transcending arbitrary barriers to craft slick AF tunes; that such immaculate art-pop tracks rarely exceed two-and-a-half minutes testifies further to her astounding talents. Whether listeners engage with the LP as a whole or focus on any of the numerous gems that constitute it, the experience will be revelatory. Unambiguously, ‘Be the Cowboy’ represents 2018’s brightest artistic moment, not so much a pinnacle as yet another classic in Mitski‘s discography likely to be cherished indefinitely.
‘Be The Cowboy’ is out now via Dead Oceans.