Album of the Week: Mitski, 'Be the Cowboy'

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Mitski, 'Be The Cowboy'
Mitski, 'Be The Cowboy' (Dead Oceans)
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This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' self-titled album, colloquially known as The White Album. Whether coincidental or not, several artists have paid their own tributes to the structuring and themes of this infamous record in 2018. Its pervasive undercurrents of violence and instability were mirrored in Ty Segall's Freedom's Goblin, its tender, complex melodicism in Father John Misty's God's Favorite Customer, its eclecticism in Parquet Courts' Wide Awake!, its sprawl in Kamasi Washington's Heaven and Earth. Another, strikingly subtle aspect was summarized by the members of Radiohead during the recording of Hail to the Thief 15 years ago: The White Album is packed full of short songs that sound like they're longer. A tune like "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," for instance, contains three or four distinct sections, before building to an explosive coda and petering out, in just 2:43! While there is self-consciously economical songwriting (check out Tony Molina's excellent Kill the Lights from earlier this year, which packs ten songs into fourteen minutes), it's arguably an ever greater accomplishment to create entire worlds out of short songs, and that's precisely what Mitski has accomplished with her newest album, Be the Cowboy.

Fourteen songs in thirty-two minutes, each track with its own fantastic depths. The effect is like taking a whirlwind tour of an opulent mansion, where the listener gets a few minutes in each ornate room to consider the multitudes of lifetimes that went into each one's background, before being whisked off to a different, equally gorgeous spot. This effect has the potential to make Be the Cowboy both more inviting and more intimidating, but the fruits of the record are worthy of the attention that should be paid.

As she's done for her entire career, Mitski Miyawaki uses many different brushes in the construction of this album. The single "Nobody" utilizes a classic disco beat underneath the feelings of isolation that the title implies; it's also almost wholly un-indicative of the rest of the album's sound. The rest of the record ranges from '90s-esque pop punk of "Remember My Name" and "Washing Machine Heart, the dare-I-say Beatle-esque piano of "Me and My Husband," all the way to an '80s arena rock guitar solo in "Why Didn't You Stop Me?" Other songs sound deconstructed entirely, as if they were recorded with a full band and instruments were gradually removed one by one; this effect literally takes place on "Blue Light."

I'd argue that Mitski's breakout came in 2016 with her song "Your Best American Girl," with a surging chorus that made it one of the most memorable moments in music of the decade. Mirroring that triumph, Mitski has now, for the second time in three years, made the song of the year in Be the Cowboy's opening cut, "Geyser." There are varying theories about the object of the narrator's devotion in this song, but fully knowing these details is secondary in significance to the song's slow build into impossibly towering heights: a suitably bubbling chorus where Mitski compares herself to the titular geyser, only to then reveal that it's merely a pre-chorus to an even bigger chorus, wherein she repeats a koan that becomes both less and more mysterious the more you think about it: "I will be the one you need the way I can't be without you." And of course, this intricate, multi-layered song wraps itself up in less than two-and-a-half minutes.

Be the Cowboy joins the aforementioned albums as one of the strongest of 2018, and further cements her as one of the most exciting talents in music.

Resources


Mitski - Official Site

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  • Interview: Mitski's many lives Mitski's new album 'Be the Cowboy' explores the singer's roles onstage, in relationships and as a woman in the world. The artist talked to NPR's Ailsa Chang about how there's no such thing as one identity.
  • Mitski on lyrical undertones, metaphors and 'Puberty 2' Before her show in First Avenue's 7th St. Entry, Mitski stopped by The Current to chat with <em>New Hot</em> host David Safar about her new album <em>Puberty 2</em>.