Hear Mitski become the cowboy

“Be the Cowboy” delves into sometimes ugly, always intimate reality of modern love


Mitski's latest album is an honest, regret-free display of emotion.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On rock phenomenon Mitski’s Spotify page, right above her fifth studio album “Be the Cowboy,” there is a message to her listeners — “dance if ur lonesome <3.” Like Mitski, it’s honest, short and modern — yet inviting, suggestive and profoundly vulnerable. It’s an admittance to the undeniable reality of her own music. She’s aware of her audience who, like herself, might remedy loneliness by reveling in an album that’s as danceable as it is cryable. 

That album is her own. It opens with a song called “Geyser” and startles almost immediately, just like a geyser would, with a cutting moment of static over her few opening declarations. That might sound like an audio mistake to some artists, but on this song it’s foreshadowing the monumental rise on the track that peaks as Mitski and her guitar call at full volume about feeling like the song’s namesake. It surprises on first listen, but after hearing the rest of her album, this moment of sonic strangeness is explained as just the beginning of Mitski’s adoption of exposed vulnerability, whether it be in songwriting or production. 

Addressing a someone in the song, the first word she speaks is “you’re,” and while she continues to pedal for a lover throughout the entirety of the album, the story she tells throughout is about herself, rising upward. Her self-assured confidence, or at least her budding self-assured confidence, is not only deserving but splendidly obvious from her side-eyed, red-lipped album cover. The rock star isn’t asking for you to listen — she’s inviting you to, just like she’s inviting you to embrace the same savoir-faire, to convert to cowboy-level confidence like she has. 

Picture a cowboy, and you’re probably thinking of a dust-covered John Wayne type with a pistol and pointed boots kicking open a saloon door. A cowboy speaks without thoughts of consequence — reveling in some form of exposed vulnerability. In a series of unapologetic, compelling songs of truth, Japanese-born Mitski Miyawaki makes herself today’s cowboy by creating a formulaic space for rare realness on alienation and gritty, difficult imagery. There are lines that are so cowboy, they deserve to be spoken on the scenes of old Westerns. 

In “Nobody,” a song about plunging deep into social self-doubt, she sings, “And I don’t want your pity / I just want someone near me.” Although she may be morosely disappointed, the song doesn’t sound upset but peppy, rhythmic — a danceable track about loneliness. 

On “Remember My Name,” Mitski says, “I need something bigger than the sky,” in a knowing admittance to her unrealistically high expectations. 

While telling the story of her own adaption to this unparalleled notion of spectacular humanness, Mitski’s songs also compose stories that seem to belong to created characters. Most of these songs do share a braided narrative of touching on some kind of love, at least Mitski’s version of it. “Me and My Husband” provides a perspective on the faithful, aging kind of domestic adoration that comes across as unsatisfying — “And I’m the idiot with the painted face / In the corner, taking up space / but when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved.” The 27 year old has never been married, but this doesn’t matter since she uses this fact combined with the universality of domesticity to write her own reflection on a married lifestyle. 

The lyrical savviness on “Be the Cowboy” sets a precedent for indie rock to be boldly direct like a line from the ringing melody “Lonesome Love” — “Spend an hour doing my makeup / to prove something.” Mitski’s addresses and confessions are akin to Liz Phair’s legendarily honest 1993 album “Exile in Guyville,” providing unfiltered perspectives on the anxieties of modern femininity.   

The reality of Mitski’s songs on this album are never up for debate — they can be as simple as repeatedly asking for a kiss as she does on “Blue Light” and “Nobody,” or as complex as “toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / baby, bang it up inside” on “Washing Machine Heart” — she’s about being honest, regretless and in touch with the impactful need to record feelings full-force.

related stories