A long time ago Japanese-American indie rock musician Mitski had a fascination with an artist who possessed cowboy attributes. While she initially thought her passion for the character was of lust, she began to later see it was actually admiration. The cowboy equalled power. The kind of power that’s been a hidden part of her personality make-up but never fully expressed.
On Mitski’s fifth album Be The Cowboy, she plays around with the concept of power mainly from the perspective of a modern woman. This is firstly shown through her position as a musician on opener ‘Geyser’ and ‘Remember My Name’. The former celebrates the power of the freedom she has to accept consequences and take risks to follow her dream career in music, whilst the latter sounds like it’s about musicians exploiting their fame in a desire to be remembered. “Can you come to where I’m staying and make some extra love? That I can save for tomorrow’s show?”
Even though fans of Mitski’s long catalogue will associate her with raw and genuine lyrics pulled straight from the heart, this time as suggested by this record’s title and album sleeve, she instead is adopting a persona. An alpha female persona that tries to cling onto any power she can get. This character analyses the power she had in her previous romantic flames. “I call you, to see you again. So I can win and this can finally end. Spend an hour doing my makeup. To prove something”, she sings in a folk song entitled Lonesome Love that exemplifies power-play within a relationship.
Perhaps the biggest evidence of the fictional nature of this album is on ‘Me and My Husband’ because Mitski herself isn’t married. It’s a fascinating track that questions how much power a housewife has in a relationship when she ends up feeling invalid until her other half comes home. “And I’m the idiot with the painted face. In the corner taking up space. But when he walks in, I am loved.”
Another track about a past flame is the sparkly ‘Old Friend’, which in its lyrics suggests a secret affair. Mitski brings a familiar song writing motif of hers, the sense of belonging. As she meets the guy at the same Blue Diner every time. It’s a refreshingly commonplace location for a multi-cultural person who’s hopped from country to country for most of her life.
Another one of the idiosyncratic traits in her discography has to be her coming-of-age lyricism but she turns this idea on his head. This time instead of narrating about millennials growing up, she writes about an old couple returning one last time to the location where their first spark was ignited: a school gymnasium. The beautiful Angelo-Baladamenti-reminiscent mellow synth track ‘Two Slow Dancers’ contains the most creepily affecting lyric about the cyclicity of mortality of the whole record: “And the ground has been slowly pulling us back down. You see it on both our skin. We get a few years and then it wants us back.”
This is Mitski’s most interesting album for its eclectic mix of styles. If her two last albums Puberty 2 and Bury Me At Makeout Creek were too heavy and suffocated by their guitar distortion, this time she spreads out the indie rock moments with Temples-like woozy folk organ and electronic keyboards. She brings back the piano of her earlier work but with plenty of personality including the Foxygen-showtune-cheerfulness of ‘Me and My Husband’ and the imagine-Regina-Spektor-at-a-discotheque ‘Nobody’, a misleadingly happy track when it’s actually about Mitski’s depressing Lost-In-Translation type loneliness during a trip to Malaysia .
Despite all the engaging elements, Be The Cowboy’s most hindering downfall entertainment-wise is the short length of its tracks, with four tracks even failing to make the 2-minute mark. Which makes it hard to truly absorb them and sound like preview snippets from a music download website.
However, Mitski has always been a calculated mistress of music and with the high quality of the tracks teases us for more, it’s perhaps the best example of true power play on show.
Be The Cowboy is out on 17th August through Dead Oceans.