Mitski Be the Cowboy

[Dead Oceans; 2018]

Styles: indie rock, electronic, indie pop
Others: Angel Olsen, The New Pornographers, ABBA

Cowboys have to kiss out there on the range, there’s no girls.”
– Dr. Steve Brule, Check It Out!

John C. Reilly’s Dr. Steve Brule is a pillar of loneliness. He seeks out companionship through his crudely made public access TV show Check It Out!, a program in which he loutishly explores a tapestry of broad topics in episodes like “Food,” Pleasure,” and the source of the above quote, “Horse.” As he sets out to learn about an episode’s given subject, interviews are conducted with local personalities, during which time the doctor’s desperation for friendship becomes painfully apparent. He inveterately mispronounces people’s names and simple words, commits easily avoidable faux pas, and is quick to overshare information about his horrifying interior life. Brule’s entreaties for human connection are routinely denied, naturally, as his inept social graces and childlike (mis)understanding of the world inhibit any meaningful personal interaction with his respondents. So when Brule makes a comment like the one above about lonesome cowboys taking solace in each other in the absence of their wives, he’s really just projecting, hoping his interviewee (the stolidly even-keeled ranch hand Rolando Wolovich) will admit to feeling the same caliber of loneliness.

Dr. Steve Brule spends much of his life in solitude, unbearably alone and equally self-unaware. And this is the kind of feeling Mitski Miyawaki taps into for Be the Cowboy. The characters in her songs don’t lack the basic savoir faire of Dr. Brule (even if they feel just as socially stunted), but they mostly suffer from a similarly indignant loneliness. There’s the narrator of “Nobody,” whose opening plaint goes, “My God, I’m so lonely,” and soon after compares her debilitating solitariness to the destruction of Venus: “Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming/ Did its people want too much, too?” On the succeeding track “Pink in the Night,” Mitski assumes the role of the spurned girlfriend, tracking the despair of a woman dying to redeem her overzealous affection: “I know I’ve kissed you before,/ But I didn’t do it right. Can I try again?” In these songs, there’s an urgent need for self-flagellation and course correction, but unfortunately the moment for rectification has passed.

Elsewhere, however, Cowboy is a work of unalloyed confidence. “Me and my husband, we’re doing better/[…] We’re sticking together,” Mitski proclaims on the triumphant “Me and My Husband.” On the opener “Geyser,” she uses that eponymous metaphor as an analog for power, verve, and passion, crying “I’m a geyser/ Feel it bubbling from below.” The characters in these songs range from craven and nebbish to empowered and vivacious, but it’s through the lens of Mitski’s songwriting that not one of these perspectives ever feels contrived or underdeveloped.

Miyawaki began her music career with 2012’s Lush, which somehow adeptly melded elements of jazz, chamber pop, and rock together, so Cowboy’s grab bag of genres isn’t necessarily unexpected. Nor is the way she reassembles the multitude of disparate styles. Instead, what’s interesting about this album is the way she goes about vivisecting hallmarks of other genres in indie rock’s periphery. The sickly, domineering synth lines in “Washing Machine Heart,” wrested from the songs of Lady Gaga’s early albums and other mid-00s pop hits, feel unexpected and fresh when removed from the sleek dance floor bombast with which they’re so often associated. Likewise, the staid piano on “Come into the Water” sounds much less dramatic and more atmospheric than the power ballads of The Fray and Train that it’s been cribbed from. The album is a bricolage of small musical samples, but centering Cowboy’s varied sounds is the through line of Mitski’s singular voice.

The title Be the Cowboy seems, at first glance, like a strange, highly specific way of saying, “man up.” After all, the American cowboy has been mythologized into a paragon of honor, individualism, and old school masculinity, with men like John Wayne cast as its figurehead. But this image of the cowboy is complicated by the fact that Wayne’s real name is Marion and that he spent his time wearing makeup and costumes onscreen and propagating white supremacist ideology offscreen. The cowboy, then, is a symbol of duality, at once virtuous and perverse. So Mitski explores a bifurcation of her own here: the vulnerability of self-proclaimed loneliness and the innate empowerment of autonomy and solitude.

Cowboy’s cover art features Mitski sporting bright red lipstick and a neutral-colored swim cap, while the hand of an individual out of the shot looms over to titivate her eyelashes. She looks away, defiantly, fixing her gaze instead on us, intimidatingly, almost accusatorily. Be the Cowboy is about capriciousness, denying the contrivances of beauty in some ways while bending to its standards in others. She’s walking the divide between love and heartache, between dejection and fury. But Miyawaki has the talent to straddle that line with poise and aplomb; she’s the geyser and also the slow dancer. She’s singing for herself, but also for her audience. There’s a little Mitski in us all, pilgrim.

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