BY EMILY ROLES-FOTSO ’21
Indie rock singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki, mononymously known as Mitski, released her highly anticipated fifth studio album “Be the Cowboy” this summer to the delight of critics and fans alike. Catapulted into stardom after the successful release of her 2014 album “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” Mitski has become renowned for lyrics that ache with such vulnerability that they have garnered her an indie cult following. Though that same raw emotion bleeds through every lyric on “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski emphasizes the difference between herself and the person she sings about in her music on the album, a distinction she feels has been overlooked in the past. In an interview with Pitchfork, she denounced the way many people compare her music to emotional diary entries, failing to acknowledge the effort and skill that go into composition. “That’s so gendered. There’s no feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe she’s a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art,’” said Mitski.
“Be the Cowboy” is composed of 14 artfully crafted tracks, each under four minutes, that feature characters with lives that sometimes differ from her own, but which conjure emotions relatable to anyone who has experienced love and loss. Each song is its own unique story, but together they illustrate the dizzying, complicated nature of human connection.
The opening track, “Geyser,” is an intense eruption that crackles with longing; Mitski sings, “I will be the one you need/I just can’t be without you” over wailing guitars, only to transition into “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”, a more upbeat piece that flirts with feelings of regret and dependency over a synth -pop beat, contrasting the open and vulnerable track that precedes it with a deceivingly unaffected façade. “Nobody” is a manic descent into madness set over a disco beat. The desire to dance carelessly around the room as Mitski sings, “Nobody, nobody, nobody,” until it no longer sounds like a word, or as she begs for, “one good honest kiss,” to stave off isolation displays the paradox behind the album’s sense of cultivated vulnerability.
One of the strongest tracks on the album, “A Pearl,” captures the complicated pain that comes when you carry wounds that have not healed into a new relationship. “Sorry I don’t want your touch/it’s not that I don’t want you,” Mitski’s character sings, desperately trying to reassure her lover before building to a roaring climax, “It’s just that I fell in love with a war/and nobody told me it ended.” In “Remember My Name,” Mitski writes about the desire to leave a mark on the world, perfectly capturing the desperate ambition of early adulthood and the constant fear of being forgotten, singing, “Just how many stars will I have to hang around me to finally call it heaven?”
From the emotional effectiveness of Mitski’s poetic lyrics and passionate sound, it is hard to believe that it is not her living these 14 lives; she is somehow simultaneously the aging ex-lovers reminiscing on their youth in the quiet ballad “Two Slow Dancers” and the committed wife who feels trapped in “Me and My Husband.” Pieces of Mitski live in each of these characters, weaving their ways through the lines of her carefully crafted masterpiece and leaving behind an album that touches on parts of the human experience that often feel isolating but are, as she reveals, universal. “Maybe I’m the same as all those men/Writing songs of all their dreaming” Mitski muses, fearing that her art could be derivative or mediocre. “Be the Cowboy” shows us that this couldn’t be further from the truth.