Mitski Refuses To Be Classified On The Indie Knockout ‘Be The Cowboy’

Cultural Critic
08.15.18

Bao Ngo

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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.

So she’s famous and also… not very famous at all. But the brilliance of Puberty 2 did make Mitski something of a figurehead — particularly among critics eager to topple the white-guy stranglehold on indie rock. Mitski, to her credit, has resisted this pre-emptive deification. At a time when publicists routinely put the word “empowerment” in press releases in order to entice music critics to write about young, unknown artists (usually women), Mitski has defended her right to explore the weaker (and less admirable) regions of the human psyche — and to do this purely as a writer and musician, not as a diarist or pop politician or in a way that’s pigeonholed by gender.

Her contrarian instincts override any attempt to make her a role model — great artists typically enjoy breaking down whatever box you put them in for sport, but few of her peers seem as pre-occupied with defying labels as Mitski. “When someone says, ‘I love this about you,’ I make a mental note: I’m never gonna do that again,” she recently admitted to GQ. “Maybe that’s a psychological problem I have to deal with.”

But this elusiveness isn’t just a media pose or the product of a childhood spent in various countries — it’s also an essential component of Mitski’s music. Vocally, she has the unique ability to convey intensity while keeping her voice relatively flat, affecting an aloofness that grows increasingly (and alluringly) askew. Though she hardly ever screams or bellows — she often sounds like she’s trying to stifle some overwhelming emotion that simmers just below her cool facade. (An exception is her most well-known song, “Your Best American Girl” — the part where her voice breaks at the end is effective precisely because she’s normally so composed.) This trick translates across the many different genres that she surveys on Be The Cowboy, which veers close to full-on mainstream pop without ever sacrificing Mitski’s inherent idiosyncrasies.

From a craftsmanship standpoint, this is her slickest and most accomplished record. Working again with long-time producer Patrick Hyland, Mitski has further refined and streamlined her sound, finally eliminating all traces of the trebly punk-rock noise that distinguished her 2014 breakthrough, Bury Me At Makeout Creek. In place of that shrieking high end are luscious synth sounds — like the pulsating Moroder-like groove of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” or the gorgeous ’70s sci-fi splashes accenting “Old Friend” — as well as the layers of lush, dreamy guitars on perfectly compact rockers like “A Pearl” and “Blue Light.”

The most impressive feat of Mitski’s songs is their economy — she’s usually able to sketch a narrative and deliver two or three hooks in about two minutes. It’s no wonder that she’s apparently dabbling in for-hire pop songwriting, though her own music will likely stay below the mainstream radar.

In another time, Mitski might have been described as “indie pop” — now the gap between indie and pop is practically nonexistent, given the breakdown in mainstream and indie sensibilities. But an album like Be The Cowboy makes a case for “indie pop” still having some utility. Mitski might be fluent in a number of pop music styles, but she’s refreshingly averse to the cult of personality that would require her to reduce her fascinating thorniness down to a slogan or meme. Like the American archetype she references in the album’s title, Mitski remains an outsider on Be The Cowboy — mysterious and charismatic, but ultimately untouchable and resolutely herself.

Be The Cowboy is out 8/17 on Dead Oceans. Pre-order it here.

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