BY ZAC CAHILL
Mitski’s near-meteoric rise from “pretty big on bandcamp” to critical indie darling has been no accident. Since her first album “Lush,” she has been steadily cultivating both a distinct, exciting sound and a sizable, devoted fanbase.
My introduction to Mitski came after the release of her third album, 2014’s “Bury Me At Makeout Creek,” a record that I listened to front to back more times than I would care to admit. This album, taken with its follow-up (2016’s “Puberty 2”), turned me into a pretty big Mitski fan.
Despite my love for both albums, I was a little anxious regarding Mitski’s next release. The guitar-heavy, fuzzed out aesthetic of her last two records was brilliant, but I was definitely hoping for her to push the envelope a little further, explore different soundscapes.
Luckily, on “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski has pulled off a successful shift in sound without compromising her signature songwriting style.
The most obvious change made is the (partial, it’s not like this album is a sea change for her artistically) shift away from guitar-driven songs back to the piano that dominated much of her first two albums. This is not to say that her sound has devolved, however, as much of “Be the Cowboy” feels like new, at times poppier ground for her.
Many of the songs are short, vignette-sized bits of indie pop and sad ballads (only two songs run for over three minutes, four are less than two). When I first saw the song lengths, I assumed the worst. I worried about half-baked song ideas, about songs losing steam or (a worse fate) ending before they were able to build up any. Luckily, none of the songs on “Be the Cowboy” suffer from these issues.
Across the album I found myself focusing not on the scant running time of these tracks but on the sheer emotional weight they carry, and how, despite this, some of Mitski’s most catchy and entertaining songs appear here.
The opener, “Geyser,” builds out of some simple synths and piano chords into a massive, foot-stomping ballad, the mix getting busier and louder until it boils over and ends at under the two and a half minute mark. Lyrically, it also sets the tone for the subject which comes to dominate much of the album: love its innumerable complications.
“A Pearl” is my personal favorite track, a song about our tendency to romanticize failed relationships. She sings: “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,” following it up with a blistering guitar solo and blaring, staccato bass synths. The song runs just over two and a half minutes yet feels complete (I remember being shocked that she fit such a perfect bridge into such a short song).
“Pink in the Night” is sparse yet gorgeous, a wide-eyed and unapologetic love song about simply enjoying moments lying in bed with a significant other.
There are also tongue-in-cheek moments. “Lonesome Love” contains the brilliant line: “‘cause nobody butters me up like you/and nobody fucks me like me.” “Me and My Husband” is almost alt-country in its instrumental, lyrically jumping between sarcasm and earnestness as she details two people deciding to stick it out through a marriage that doesn’t seem to be working as well as it could be.
And then there’s the closer. “Two Slow Dancers” has to be one of the most heartbreaking songs Mitski has ever written (and that’s saying a lot). The story is not a new one: two people realizing that, despite their best intentions, they cannot make their love work. The piano is slow and echoing, the swells of orchestral instrumentation coupled with Mitski’s voice are downright chill-inducing.
Across “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski condenses song structures without sacrificing depth. Her writing has never been more exacting or clear; these songs, however short, do not lack in insight. It is an impressive album from one of the more exciting acts in the indie scene currently, and one of the best of 2018 thus far.