Be the Cowboy is the ‘La La Land’ soundtrack, but good.
Clickbait lede aside, Mitski tones down the wounded anguish of her previous work for a poppier take on corrupted romance. She sounds lonely as ever, but a Disney theatricality cloaks it all. That is, Be the Cowboy feels more show tune than grunge.
The instrumentation is cheerful while the lyrics are dreary. Mitski’s poetry remains cutting, alternating between mundane and surreal. As a composer, she wields dissonance and noise to great effect. The production is rich, recalling Mitski’s older work. Though there’s plenty of punk and folk guitar, there’s also a mix of gauche synths and boom-clap drum patterns. These give the album its light, pop feel. All these things culminate to help Mitski reach far past the sounds that launched her into stardom.
The most chipper tracks on Be the Cowboy are paired with winking satire that heightens the fun. “Me and My Husband,” for example, paints the haunted portrait of a wife hanging onto her marriage despite her profound unhappiness. The song begins with a sigh before the protagonist boasts about her obviously loveless marriage. A nihilistic outlook is deftly woven into her characterization. All of it is backed by uncomfortably prim instrumentals: the downbeats hit just a little too hard, keeping strict time. It’s nightmare pop, as if Meghan Trainor were writing military marches. Through its critique of domestic life, the track explores the same desperation in Mitski’s other work.
The lead single “Nobody,” besides being one of the best songs of the summer, is similarly ripe with irony. The disco beat is infectious and carefree. The titular chorus is Mitski’s best vocal performance on the album. Though more restrained than her other work, it’s no less heartfelt. The song practically begs listeners to sing and dance along.
The kicker is that the lyrics of “Nobody” are so sad and angsty. One of the song’s best moments serves as an apt summary. In the third verse, Mitski croons, “Still nobody wants me,” a moment of pathetic self-doubt. A cheerful “clap clap” immediately follows, perhaps a reference to the same pattern from Wonder Girls’ “NOBODY.” The message is to put on a brave face in the midst of hardship: to be the cowboy.
Every song is a new story. Mitski distills heartache into frank love letters, each with its own distinct aesthetic signature.
The story of “Blue Light” starts in head-over-heels mania –– the mood of the day after a first kiss –– before crashing down to a more meditative melancholy. The music matches: the song goes from skipping rockabilly to quiet reverb in under two minutes.
“Washing Machine Heart” embodies the desire to cleanse a partner of their struggles. Fluty synth and thumping bass together evoke a sense of heady wonder, providing counterpoint to Mitski’s melting “Why not me?”
The lyrics to “Pink in the Night” seem lifted straight out of “West Side Story.” It’s the very picture of a wholesome crush, imbued in sparkling warmth. Sonically, the track mimics the buildup of “Your Best American Girl,” the lead single from Mitski’s last album, Puberty 2. “Pink in the Night” never comes to a head like “Your Best American Girl.” Instead, Mitski draws up a blissful passion, allowing naive illusion to persist.
Be the Cowboy’s minor vice is that it doesn’t always let its songs breathe. Most tracks hover around the two minute mark. Mitski leaves listeners wanting more of the world each suggests.
Furthermore, “Lonesome Love” is one of Mitski’s tritest songs yet. On an album that has emotionally sincere writing as the centerpiece, the track has nothing new to offer.
But the highlights on the album are transcendent, overshadowing minimal shortcomings. Mitski mends heartbreak as only she can, even as she adds new elements to her repertoire. She successfully avoids being pigeonholed, evolving her sound and proving that she is full of surprises.