Mitski’s Be the Cowboy

Few musical miniatures command the attention like Mitski’s “Geyser,” the opening track on Be the Cowboy (out since August), which changes shape three times in two minutes. The echoey church organ effect that starts the song bewitches, as does Mitski’s slow, drawn-out intonation (“You’re … my … number one”), at once solemn and yearning and creepy. As the song continues, her singing is interrupted by intermittent splats of static that eventually build into a full backing band, with thundering fuzzy guitars and drums. Then everything explodes: the anthemic chorus that follows plays at maximum volume and sounds huge, as does the subsequent keyboard hook. Then it’s all over! “Geyser” ends as abruptly as it started.

Fragmented grandiosity is Mitski’s mode. The New York folk-punk singer writes short, scary songs with convolutions in them, holes and twists and choruses that never repeat, and unexpected endings. She contorts songs into weird shapes, terse emotional sketches or performed realizations. Her bleakly mordant Puberty 2 (2016) was the year’s weirdest and saddest breakup album, a song cycle about extricating herself from a toxic relationship, with every flaw exaggerated for comedic and horrific effect.

The classic emo formula of lo-fi acoustic strumming, augmented by crackling power chords, suits her wobbly voice, solemn in a way that suggests the projection of an aspirational seriousness larger than herself. Her skewed, abridged compositional sense is one reason Puberty 2 rocks impressively, while teetering on the flimsy edge of collapse — the way “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” smolders for two cathartic minutes before immediately petering out; the way “Your Best American Girl” builds gradually to the giant distorted chorus and, once there, keeps building, piling on more guitars until the end; the way the peerless “I Bet on Losing Dogs” interrupts the two choruses with a queasily extended keyboard figure you never hear again.

Thanks to tricks like these, the album entered an uncharted realm of formal play while remaining within the genre codes of emo confessional (for experimenting with song structure is an established branch of punk exploration). As a form, the story-song fictionalizes by default, drawing attention to the gap between performer and material. Be the Cowboy, an equally fraught record with less overarching narrative, continues Mitski’s project of plumbing the human heart and shuddering at the results.

Superficially, Be the Cowboy’s most striking development is the increased number of shiny keyboard hooks, in the vein of Puberty 2’s “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” The effect is akin to drawing deadpan exclamation points on songs — the electronic squiggles in “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” are eventually doubled by horns, while the synthetic organ in “Washing Machine Heart” marches grandly between verses. It’s no kind of pop move, though, not even a wink-wink feigned pseudomove like St. Vincent’s Masseduction (2017). It is a playfully experimental indie-rock album with shiny keyboards on it.

Reviews claiming that she’s cut down on the guitar noise exaggerate how much guitar noise there was on the previous album. This music is defined by the creaky, dust-spattered sound of her acoustic guitar and/or cleanly trebly electric, strummed or plucked, as a token of expressionist sincerity and a way to sound homemade, if not exactly lo-fi. Paradoxically, the keyboards, power riffage, horns, drum machines, and subtle electronic touches, which should beef up the sound, accentuate the fragility; they create an omnipresent backdrop of noise and static, intermittently cranked up and down to simulate the noise roaring in Mitski’s head.

Be the Cowboy belongs to the honorable category of the eclectic indie jumble, where anything goes as long as it’s all unified by a rough guitar-rock template and a singer-songwriter in command of her form — especially if the musical disarray mirrors an insecurity expressed in the lyrics. Here, the songs are more fragmented than ever: jagged, uneven, and totally riveting. The organ hook in “Washing Machine Heart,” which functions as a de facto chorus, plays one of Mitski’s favorite tricks: It leads one to expect further gratification later in the song, but when it starts again after the second verse, the song ends in the middle. You’re left grasping vainly as the song recedes. Where did it go?

Mitski’s overarching theme is exhaustion. A bleary, worn-down, frustrated bitterness always lurks in her songwriting. Puberty 2 is, among other things, an argument against desire — an exploration of how the self/body can recoil from its own romantic longings as if physically sick. She articulates this through the wistful, sodden grain of her voice, as well as lyrics that describe desire in the most revolting terms possible (“Pinky promise kisses”; “kisses like pink cotton candy”; “How you’d be over me looking in my eyes when I come/ someone to watch me die”).

In its fidgety reticence, Be the Cowboy is even less conventionally cathartic. The guitars bury her rather than expunging her pain. Even the upbeat songs seem somehow paralyzed. If Mitski’s songs resonate in this dystopian age, it’s because her prevailing mood is less agony on a grand scale than creeping numbness, constant bombardment and stress, a bunch of little things that wouldn’t matter individually, death by a thousand cuts, the ostinato drone in the back of your head slowly corroding your brain away.

But the messy, distorted music rocks hard anyway, as both a representation of, and a temporary antidote to, psychic chaos. The jaunty bounce of “Me and My Husband” first comes off as a joke about codependency (“It’s always been just him and me”), as the percussive guitar strumming and plinky piano gleam with eager mock cheer, before revealing that the husband is actually the remedy for the narrator’s own despair (“I’m the idiot with the painted face in the corner taking up space/ but when he walks in I am loved”).

“A Pearl,” her most miserable ode to keeping secrets, starts out fresh and jangly before static starts to crackle and the song erupts into a scrappy noise explosion. Mitski keeps layering more and more guitar crunch, slamming the chords out harder and harder, but it won’t happen, there’s no release. Finally, she strips it all away in frustration. The song reverts to its original unadorned strum, and she wilts, defeated. “A Pearl” typifies how Mitski’s refusal of instant gratification, evident in her reluctance to repeat hooks and choruses, disguises quieter, sneakier pleasures — the fascination of staring at musical puzzles and seeing your own discontent reflected.

Quotidian anxiety may not seem like the stuff of rock drama, but the weary, abrasive lurch of these condensed miniatures captures a contemporary mood. It’s the endless struggle to cope; it’s her acknowledgment of how merely existing in the world can bring you down. By enacting this sensibility, Be the Cowboy also counteracts it. It’s a scary, gripping instance of singer-songwriter craft, and it rocks with spiky clarity.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...