The interplay between one’s external self and internal desires has long been Mitski’s fascination, and she previously delved into it with the trappings of a subgenre more or less invented for psychic conflict: alternative rock, whose scraping guitars and clashing cymbals can encase gemlike choruses. Her 2016 masterpiece, Puberty 2, opened with a dry, scary thumping as Mitski trained her handsome voice—she sings with a thickness of tone that’s theatrical, but also with a sense of control that’s almost conversational—on describing the very concept of “happiness” as a caddish lover, leaving her apartment in a mess after a one-night stand. Her signature single, “Your Best American Girl,” rendered in a satisfying roar the delicate subject of how relationships can be shaped by race, privilege, and even cultural scripts around emotion.
For Be the Cowboy, she’s largely left behind the post-Nirvana gloom and instead ventured into realms more associated with show-biz smiles: disco, new wave, show tunes, chamber pop, power pop. Mitski has said she picked these styles in part because of their seeming artifice and guilelessness, and the cover of the album—with her being primped and made up as a mid-century showgirl—tracks with that. But there’s nothing rote, naive, or nostalgic here. Many of her impressively concise tunes eschew the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula, with the intensity dropping off or spiking in unexpected places. Lyrics are more central to her appeal than for a lot of songwriters, and Mitski’s are lucid, original, and gutting: Her “experiments” in narrative worked.
As importantly, the emotions she first unleashes on “Geyser” surge throughout the album. Her characters want to inhabit the strong, silent, go-it-alone archetype implied by the title Be the Cowboy, but they also subvert it by pining fiercely for human connection. The addictive dance-along of “Nobody” came out of her taking a Christmas vacation solo and finding it to be, lo and behold, too lonely. On “Me and My Husband,” Mitski appears to flirt with oblivion—“Steal a few breaths from the world for a minute / And then I’ll be nothing forever”—but then gets to trilling about a happy, secure relationship. “I’m the idiot with the painted face, in the corner, taking up space,” she sings. “But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved.”
The cultural image of the cowboy has also, she’s said, helped her affect a show of confidence on stage. But Mitski’s songs clearly convey the damage that can underlie steeliness. On the Roy Orbison–esque reverie “A Pearl,” she apologizes to a lover to whom she’s been too frosty, saying, “It’s just that I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended.” It’s a devastatingly simple explanation, but one tinged with hope that peace might be brokered. Over countrypolitan strums on “Lonesome Love,” she sings about psyching herself up to go meet someone “so I can win, and this can finally end”—presumably, she’s going to break up with this person. Yet there’s a punchline: “You say, ‘Hello’ / And I lose.” Her loss, of course, is also victory—the victory of accepting grace, even if it’s temporary, or even if it changes you forever.