- by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2018-08-17 Label: Dead Oceans
Mitski’s fifth album is swaggeringly titled Be The Cowboy. Over fourteen primarily two-minute tracks, Mitski does in fact exude a Stetson hat full of confidence. The sturdily built tracks, show her at the height of self-assuredness when it comes to her music. Blaring synths, distorted guitars, regal piano ballads, nothing here falters and some of the haziness of her prior works is pretty well done away with in favor of sure footedness. But all is not as well as it may seem at first. What Mitski is most confident about lyrically is not being confident at all, but own it she does. The subjects of her songs deal with longing, missed connections, regretted break-ups, and the hope that the tide will turn on a single kiss or a perfectly applied lipstick.
The opening track, ‘Geyser’, enters with a piercing single organ chord that commands attention. The clarity of Mitski’s soaring voice and the accompaniment make for the feel of a center stage set piece. Recently performing some solo shows, tracks like this would shine in that setting. While the song’s title invokes warmth, there is an undeniable iciness to the track that conveys not all is well in this tale of dependence.
There are many other songs where the lack of harmony between Mitski’s characters is more overt or the missed connection is more clear. The pathos of the women on several of the songs here is tangible, and in many instances revolves around the trap of physical appearance. The woman at the center of the beautifully melodic ‘Lonesome Love’ spends an hour on her make-up, but realizes the attention getting fails as she admits “nobody fucks me like me.” Even more pathetic is the wife at the center of ‘Me and My Husband’ - self described as the “idiot with the painted face in the corner” she’s met with only the furrowed brow of her husband in spite of the claim that they are doing so much better these days. On ‘Washing Machine Heart’ the woeful hero is “not wearing her usual lipstick” in hopes of a kiss, while on ‘Nobody’ a single kiss is hoped for as the catalyst for change.
Though Mitski’s characters never denounce their paint and powder, her continued use of the device points to realization of the feminine trap foisted on these characters. While her sad protagonists may subsist in their miserable lives wishing for change, Mitski and longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland thrive in setting the musical context for these tales. At their most assertive, ‘A Pearl’ crackles with synth and horns and hints at an early Roxy Music glam, while ‘Remember My Name’ rocks hard with an energetic corrosiveness. The cinematic romp and sound effects of ‘Nobody’ recall the livelier moments of Michelle Zauner’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet from last year.
Strong throughout, Be The Cowboy peaks in its quieter moments where the mood of the lyrics meets the tone. Like the set piece of ‘Geyser’, the lightly adorned piano of ‘Old Friend’ with its invitation to meet at the evocative Blue Diner and talk about nothing begs for a solo performance. The light shuffle of ‘Lonesome Love’ and hushed organ notes of ‘Pink in the Night’ are bewitching in quietly begging the listeners attention. But the longest track and closer, ‘Two Slow Dancers’, is devastating in its stark portrayal of a couple having danced the dance til the end. Time waits for no one as the slow waltz unfolds and the lovers’ resigned fate is simply summed up as “But as it is, and it is”. A final catch in Mitski’s breath is either of the dying or a final thought that is ultimately thought better of. A beautifully mournful conclusion to an album chock full of missed connections. Even when the connection hits in this case, time and gravity pulls it to the ground.
I’ve never seen a cowboy cry, but I’m sure they cry hard. No silent sniffles or tiny tears rolling down their ruddy cheeks, but deep shuddering sobs. By confronting human nature’s flaws and the missed hopes we all suffer with head on, the album manages to successfully “cowboy up”. If Mitski’s characters aren’t quite up to the role to Be The Cowboy, she certainly lives up to it herself in command of these songs. Mitski’s confident economy with no wasted steps over the course of the album is the musical equivalent of rodeo calf roping - expert aim of the lasso and a quick takedown with no room for error. Mitski doesn’t take her eye off the prize for a second and certainly comes up the cowboy here, not the face painted clown.
She continues to impress me. I loved Puberty 2, dunno if I'd consider this better, but at least on par. Great review.