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On the last track of her fifth album, Be The Cowboy, Mitski Miyawaki zags when you expect her to zig. Though by now, zags ought to be expected from the 27-year-old indie singer-songwriter, who in her music and public persona delights in being cagey.
Up through that final song, a skeletal synth-ballad called “Two Slow Dancers,” Be The Cowboy unfolds like a panoramic epic about failed human interactions, a musical Magnolia for lovelorn millennials. Thwarted desire is a constant theme in Mitski’s latest songs — her characters want what they cannot have, whether it’s love, a warm bed for the night, or a moment of peace amid perpetual spiritual chaos. Often, the music delivers the transcendence that Mitski doesn’t allow in her lyrics — the anthemic rush of “Geyser,” the disco elation of “Nobody,” the brassy yacht rock of “Me And My Husband.” But the young urbanites that populate Be The Cowboy are too savvy to give themselves over completely to fantasies, at least not without a knowing sigh acknowledging their ultimate futility. “I know no one will save me,” she sings in “Nobody.” “I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss / And I’ll be alright.”
All of this builds to “Two Slow Dancers,” a torch song capping off Mitski’s highest-profile release to date. Surely this will be her grand flourish, her thesis statement, the profound explainer that will tie the musically eclectic Be The Cowboy together.
But Mitski doesn’t do that. Or she doesn’t do it in the way you might expect. Instead, she utters the album’s funniest, and goofiest, lyric. “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here,” she sings, with nary a smirk. “It’s funny how they’re all the same / It’s funny how you always remember.” As a metaphor for the lived-in familiarity of lovers who appear to be on the verge of uncoupling, a stinky gym is both perverse and kind of genius.
Mitski herself has long demonstrated a bit of a perverse streak. Her previous album, 2016’s Puberty 2, made her indie-famous — meaning she is covered favorably and with great enthusiasm by the music press, though she’s still able to walk down the street in most cities without being recognized. Earlier this year, she played first amid a series of openers on Lorde’s latest tour, which put her in arenas that were typically only half-full by the time she arrived on stage.