Mitski’s Be The Cowboy landed at No. 3 on our 2018 critic poll’s best albums list. Check out the poll here, and our thoughts on the album’s impact below.
There are countless pieces floating around the internet written about Mitski’s Be The Cowboy, unsurprisingly so –- the musician’s brilliant fifth studio album has amassed critical acclaim, consistently topping year-end lists. Be The Cowboy is the musical embodiment of a power move, an album that comes with sparkling, unmissable notes of rebellion.
Upon first listen, one might initially assume that each track was birthed from one of Mistki’s own diary entries –- Confessional! Courageously raw! Deeply personal! However, she’s described Be The Cowboy as a meticulous character study and “experiment in narrative and fiction.” And when you might be inclined to pine a lover to the receiving end of her laments, you learn that she maybe wasn’t singing to another person all along: The record’s opening track, “Geyser,” showcases Mitski laying her heart open: “You’re my number one / You’re the one I want,” she croons, but she’s doing so with a fire in her eyes, directing her words towards what she deems her closest relationship — her music career.
Mitski has also given ample insight into what it means to “be the cowboy” figuratively. In an interview with Trevor Noah, she likened the cowboy in the album’s title to the kind of Clint Eastwood, Marlboro commercial trope: “There’s such an arrogance and a freedom to it that is so appealing to me, especially because I’m an Asian woman and I think I walk into a room and feel like I have to apologize for existing,” she said. “This album’s protagonist is someone like me who feels like they want to channel or embody that energy of a cowboy.”
She agreed that Asian culture might be one of the furthest things from “cowboyness” — “The idea of a cowboy is so American because of the idea of a man riding into town, wrecking sh*t, and then walking out like he’s the hero,” she continued. Sonically, the record exudes that insouciant power. Her lyrical stories ride galloping disco beats, beats that churn forward like a pulse. On one of the album’s most dance-y songs, “Nobody,” Mitski divulges the sensation of total isolation and repulsion: “I’ve been big and small and big and small and big and small again / And still nobody wants me,” she sings, and even as her voice lets off into a dissonant, deluded daze, the music keeps pumping. Some of the most cutting lines are sung on “A Pearl”: “You’re growing tired of me,” and “It’s just that I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended / And it left a pearl in my head / And I roll it around every night just to watch it glow.” It’s devastating, but it still beckons you to throw your arms up and spin until it all goes black.
Up until this point, I had listened to Mistki’s earlier albums with a pretty similar disposition, usually taking on some pitiful posture of mourning. Hearing her snarl on tracks like “First Love / Late Spring” from 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek or “Francis Forever” and “Your Best American Girl” from Puberty 2 introduced me to new emotional landscapes as I first began to consciously reckon with my own Asian-American identity, my pervasive loneliness, and how the two of those more often than not played into each other. I’d wallow, and then I’d turn on Mitski and almost instantly feel buoyed — there was someone out there who looked like me, and felt things like me, and articulated those nuanced frustrations in a way that made me feel slyly victorious. And that was enough.
As the last trash fire year folds into itself and we collectively tread forward with what leftover hope seems plausible, I’ve been waxing poetic in my journal and reading old ones to compare where I once was with where I am now. Loneliness used to be appealing to write about in earnest, but then year after year I realize it’s become my only constant, and any effort to continue that same narrative seems tired and eye-rollingly void of novelty.
Being home for the holidays induced in me something like whiplash. When I am away from the things I resent for tying me down, I am free to indulge the part of me that wants to rage, to give way to my performative inclinations, to become more and more like some metaphorical cowboy. That world-building is what defined 2018 for me, and from what I know, for many others, too: Rather than being characterized by our desires for things humiliatingly far out of reach, we reveled in our sad, odd fantasies and instead conjured up these aspirational characters we’d rather be. Typically, these dream selves are brasher (“I know that I ended it / But why won’t you chase after me?” Mitski inquires pointedly on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me”) and farther ahead (“I bet all I have on that furrowed brow / And at least in this lifetime / We’re sticking together,” she settles in on “Me And My Husband”).
But when I return back to where I came from, I realize that my eagerness to become an enigma doesn’t eliminate the deeper hurts I carry: The hurts that come with feeling like a perpetual outsider, of juggling two cultural identities that seem almost entirely contrary to one another. And when I look closer, they never even faded for a moment –- they’re unmoving, serving as an undercurrent to all of my lashing out. In an interview with Vinyl Me Please, Mitski said, “I should just be the swaggering white guy onstage… I should just forget that I’m an Asian woman, and just be like, ‘What would a cowboy do in this situation?’ and he’d be like, ‘I ain’t gon’ take that sh*t!’” That approach, while maybe not fully remedial, is still effective, and still helps us get by. it did in 2018, at least. This year, “being the cowboy” wasn’t just a reference to a cutesy album name; it became a lifestyle, a survival mechanism.
The album closes with a slow-burning ballad (one that still somehow teeters with the anticipation that runs through Be The Cowboy, ready to spill over), depicting a scene of “Two Slow Dancers” in a school gymnasium. It’s an homage to the passage of time, a four-minute song that stops time for a moment for us to think back on all the lives we’ve lived, all the people we’ve transformed into and out of. On the last day of the year, Mitski tweeted its lyrics out, followed by a short and sufficient statement: “Goodbye to 2018 that wrote this song.”
and the ground has been slowly pulling us back down
you see it on both our skin
we get a few years and then it wants us back
it would be 100 times easier
if we were young again
but as it is, and it is
we’re just two slow dancers
last ones out
(happy new year)
— mitski (@mitskileaks) January 1, 2019
Before the song fades, it swells once last time as Mitski repeats the line, “To think that we could stay the same.” It’s tinged with a sense of melancholic vigor that we might be able to make the moments that make up the here and now last longer. But then it settles, giving way to an inevitable ending, allowing time to sweep us into whatever comes next -– and whatever comes next could be even more beautiful.