Mitski Miyawak returns with her fifth studio album Be The Cowboy, which expands on her indie rock stylings into expected, but blissful territory. The album comes as a logical progression from the critically acclaimed Puberty 2 (2016) and has a heavier focus on synthesised sounds and stark vocal deliveries. The songs tend to be on the shorter side, with only two of the 14 tracks breaking the three-minute mark, but all are emotional and hard-hitting. Be The Cowboy especially builds upon the heavier side of her music, with tracks such as “Geyser” and “A Pearl” taking on faster tempos and more distorted tones.
Lead single and opening track “Geyser” throws the listener into a tidal wave of noise, building from a piercing organ introduction that sits under the soaring vocals of Mitski. A crazy glitch in the first minute acts as a shock, emphasising the huge sound the song is creating. A continuous stream of instruments are piled up – with guitars, keyboards, percussion and strings creating a fantastic soundscape. The track sways from ambient to majestic and in essence is a grand piece, a testament to the incredible arrangement and performance skills of Miyawak, as well as to her insane attention to detail. Flourishes of brass are even heard, with this and passing of distorted guitar tones constantly pushing the cries of “you’re my number one” to the heavens.
“Why Didn’t You Stop Me” is built upon a machine gun bassline and incorporates rhythms and feel from a funkier time for a toe-tapping groove. Clean guitar tones and openly crunchy guitars slide in, on occasion, offsetting the dissonant but poppy chorus riff. It’s worth mentioning here, for those yet to be inducted into to the sound of Mitski, that one of the defining characteristics that presents itself across her work is her amazing use of unusual and unexpected chords. The sound this creates is exceptional, as it prevents progressions from becoming tiring, and adds an experimental flair to all of the cuts on Be The Cowboy.
The more sombre side of the record is kicked off with “Old Friend”, a simpler and slower track, which again features catchy synth riffs. Dramatic piano pushes the song in its effortless shifts between 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. The short song is essentially a four chord ballad, but on occasion an outlandish chord is sprinkled in, not only throwing you off, but drawing you in. “A Pearl” harks back to chord progressions from the 90s rock world of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with oddly major sounds being thrown in on what may seem a whim, but is likely a calculated expression. Personal lyrics are, as usual, the foray of the track, with a more driving and heavier chorus propelling the songwriter’s musing. Rich brass is added in the bridge to seal this memorable cut.
“Lonesome Love” is a very short track which deviates from the full, orchestral, sound of the previous songs. Supported by a jangly acoustic guitar, Mitski comments on modern love and the woes of relationships. Lyrics such as “spend an hour on my makeup to prove something,” may even reflect personal experiences, a common thread the album seems to take. The song isn’t necessarily bare, but it’s far from the most interesting arrangement contained within. “Remember My Name” starts with a harsh synth loop and a punky, hard-hitting verse. But it hits its stride with unusual chord choices in its chorus.
“Nobody” is an upbeat single which leans heavily on disco era electric guitar and hi hats, but with unmistakenly contemporary lyrics such as “Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming, did its people want too much too?”. The hi hat pattern in the song’s intro recall and mirror the opening to “Fight the Power” by The Isley Brothers (1975), as well as probably a raft of other hits from that era. While the chorus of “Pink in the Night” could be an unreleased Fleetwood Mac idea, the song pulls the listener in with a sensual vocal line, formed upon spiralling held notes. A chilling chorus is another highlight, but the main attraction here is Miyawak’s vocal performance. The song has a restrained vocal melody that seemingly refuses to resolve to the expected note. It’s arguably one of the best songs on the album, as it both incorporates dense and sparse sections – presenting the best of both worlds that Mitski is great at creating.
“Washing Machine Heart” surely must be a satire of commonplace pop. The pairing of heavy acoustic percussion and clapping is paired with a squishy bass line, shaking awake any sleepy listeners after the previous tracks. The mix could have benefited from a more vintage or tasteful synth timbre, but the song is still good, albeit short. “Blue Light” starts as a cheerier track with more of a garage feel, but quickly trips into a spaced-out and filtered exploration of noise. Heavy delay on Mitski’s interrogation (“are you that blue light?”) and a washed-out and distant tone on the instrumentation form an otherworldly atmosphere, a new territory for the album. The lyrics fall into the same personal and emotional themes as usual, but start out as more childlike, before the track catapults into the described psychedelic section.
The sweetness of Mitski’s voice is fully revealed on the closer, “Two Slow Dancers”. A stripped-back duality of electric piano and vocals, the song is the longest track on the record, and one that manages to find a middle ground between the stripped-back sound and the more intense instrumentation Be The Cowboy explores. The track is almost akin to Radiohead’s “True Love Waits”, and it is here that the purest emotion on the record is heard. Both calling back to her own days of high school and looking to the future with the lover in question, “Two Slow Dancers” ends the record without seeming weepy, but presents a vulnerable character under the elegant voice. The climax of the track comes with bass, whining effects and the building of a dense sound. A slow crescendo accentuates the harmonies heard in the closing seconds.
Overall, Be The Cowboy is both graceful and progressive. While odd chord choices and at times straightforward production stylings may be grating to some listeners, a focus on instrumentation and balance between heavier and softer tracks certainly makes it one of Mitski’s finest albums to date.
Be The Cowboy is released Friday 17th August via Dead Oceans.