Singer/songwriter Mitski Miyawaki has been steadily rising to the upper echelons of the indie music scene for several years now. After her 2014 release “Bury Me at Makeout Creek” secured her a cult fan base, her 2016 release “Puberty 2” rocketed her to Pitchfork-darling status. The announcement of her fifth studio album, “Be the Cowboy,” landed her a spot on many music magazines’ lists of their most anticipated albums of 2018.
Mitski spent her first four albums curating a sound consisting of vocals seeped in emotion, guitar riffs and hard-hitting lyricism often detailing the trials of love and solitude. While her first three albums weren’t bad, “Puberty 2” no doubt perfected this sound. Rather than continuing to pursue everything that made her a big name in the music scene, on “Be the Cowboy” she has opted to throw almost all of it out the window, a risky decision that pays off.
While “Be the Cowboy” has traces of the ballads and rock songs of Mitski’s previous material, the vast majority of tracks are aesthetically upbeat, a shift signaled by “Nobody,” the second of three singles released in promotion of the album. “Nobody” feels like a sing-along designed to be danced to, and many other tracks take the same approach. Mitski experiments with synth-pop a good deal throughout the album on songs like “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” and “Washing Machine Heart.”
The overall tone of the album is upbeat, at least instrumentally. “Remember My Name” is her biggest banger to date, with heavy drums and wailing guitars sounding like something that would be played at a baseball game. The album does have a handful of sadder songs, the most obvious being the closing track, “Two Slow Dancers.” The song is a haunting ballad about people growing apart as they mature.
Lyrically, Mitski’s music is just as devastating as ever. Heart-wrenching lines like “My god I’m so lonely/So I open the window/To hear sounds of people,” or “I know I ended it/But why won’t you chase after me?” and “I thought I’d traveled a long way/But I’d circled,” make artists like Lana Del Rey and Adele seem like stand-up comics.
Thematically, the vast majority of songs depict the trials of maintaining or enjoying human relationships, something Mitski has mentioned she struggles with in various interviews. Despite the dramatically bleak phrasing, Mitski typically delivers the lines with happy, sing-song vocals that compliment the perky instrumentals. Again, with exceptions, such as “Two Slow Dancers” where she repeatedly belts out “To think that we could stay the same,” sounding like she’s trying not to burst into tears.
“Be the Cowboy” is not without its flaws. Many of the songs feel too short. Quite few of them just barely reach the two-minute mark and leave much more to be desired. The ordering of the songs feels like it could have been arranged better since there are no distinct transitions on the album. Some songs, like “A Horse Named Cold Air,” feel completely out of place with the songs preceding and following. Despite these issues, the album remains a fantastic collection of some of Mitski’s best, boldest and happiest material.
In a year where singer/songwriters have been putting out some fantastic projects, such as Courtney Barnett’s “Tell Me How You Really Feel” or Soccer Mommy’s “Clean,” Mitski has once again released music that stands out. The change in style could have been a disaster, but aside from some minor shortcomings, she pulls off a sound that makes her skillful lyricism more interesting and fun than it’s ever been.