Mitski’s first album since her 2016 breakthrough hit Puberty 2 is able to deepen the sound and expand on the themes explored in that record, with a deft and original touch. In an interview with Out magazine, Mitski explains her inspiration for the sound of Be the Cowboy, which is that of the “image of someone alone on a stage, singing solo with a single spotlight trained on them in an otherwise dark room.” That imagery is remarkably apt for the sound created within the efficient, yet emotionally dense, 37 minutes of the album. The lack of layered production on the vocals contributes to conveying the utter loneliness of the singer for many of these songs. The lyrics often explicitly note loneliness, or some form of yearning that is not being satisfied, all of which contribute to the album’s soaring quality, always reaching towards a catharsis. The album juggles a larger variety of sounds and moods than Puberty 2 did, and that can initially be slightly jarring. However, Be the Cowboy quickly rewards repeat listens, peeling back layers of feeling and a surprising cohesiveness to anybody willing to pay attention.
The album begins with maybe the most dramatic song of the group, “Geyser,” which starts quiet and gentle, but soon builds up and explodes like the titular hot spring. With everything she sings, Mitski makes clear how much skill and control she has over her voice, but here especially she impresses right out of the gate. She moves swiftly from sounding mournful and sweet to elevating her voice to a fiery volume that you could head-bang to if you choose to. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” follows the powerful punch of “Geyser,” with slightly jarring electro-pop that is decidedly upbeat sounding. The singer asks an ex why they didn’t stop her from ending the relationship because they know her better than herself anyway. Why would they let her do that? This is the first glimpse of a running technique through this album – creating a slightly peppy, upbeat song for a singer who is utterly heartbroken or being driven slowly crazy by their own poor decisions. “Lonesome Love” follows this trend, employing classic country western style music to tell the story of someone who, against her better judgment, still wants something that was bad for her.
“Me and My Husband” is surprisingly nuanced within its short runtime. The singer, “the wife,” sings about generally being unhappy with herself and her life, but sounds relatively optimistic when she returns to the fact that she and her husband are sticking together, no matter what. Mitski was inspired to write this song as a way to try and “rebel against youth culture,” and it works. She says in an interview with 405 that “much of music is so youth-oriented when there are so many more stories to tell… a pop song doesn’t just have to be about that young love,” and this song proves that skilled songwriters should wade outside of the “young love” waters more. “Me and My Husband” is a catchy pop song, but it is also a relatively rare perspective on what it’s like to be in a relationship once it is far past the lust and butterflies stage.
Ultimately the best “crying with a smile” song that Mitski includes on this album—and perhaps the lynchpin of the whole endeavor—is “Nobody,” placed just past the halfway mark of the record. The threads of loneliness, heartache, and desperation that are visible throughout the rest of the album are sewn together in a bold tapestry with this song. The singer just “wants somebody near” her, even though she knows “no one will save” her. Nevertheless, if she could just have “one good honest kiss,” that might make things better. This is just one of several references to “just a kiss” or kissing throughout the album, which serves to create a visceral sense of a character who is feeling a loneliness and a need that is so pure that they can only hope to dream for a kiss at most. That simple act would be enough to satisfy them and briefly cure them of their desolation. The singer in “Nobody” has been “big and small/big and small,” indicating perhaps both physical and mental changes, but still “nobody wants” her. Eventually, the singer just begins to sing “nobody, nobody, nobody…” over and over on top of a straight-up disco beat, crafting an image of not just a person singing alone on a stage, but a person singing alone and dancing under a disco ball as well.
Surrounding the sounds of energetic desperation is the more somber variety of loneliness Mitski is equally great at constructing. “Old Friend,” “Come Into the Water,” “Blue Light,” “Two Slow Dancers” and “A Horse Named Cold Air” are the most subdued tracks of the album, with “Water” continuing the slight thread of country-tinged music, and “Cold Air” being as sparse and lonely as the title sounds. “A Pearl,” “Remember My Name” and “Washing Machine Heart” inject some excellent, sharp guitar rock into the sonic landscape of the album, with “Name” being the most straightforward rocker of the bunch, and “Washing Machine Heart” replicating the machine in its name with a viscerally mechanical and propulsive sound.
The sonic and emotional journey that Mitski takes you on ends with a cool-down in “Two Slow Dancers.” In a way, it’s a classic album ender, a song that is slow enough to work as a long fade out, but one that also works to tie up the emotions exposed and themes explored in the previous 30-plus minutes. The song is simple on the surface but is very economical in crafting its imagery. Mitski sings of two ex-lovers, slow dancing in a school gymnasium—or maybe just somewhere that smells like one—and who imagine and wish that they were younger, when things could be easier and they could have stayed together. The singer laments, “To think that we could stay the same,” as the slightly cheesy music of the song works to subtly replicate the sound of an old prom that they might imagine themselves to be dancing at. After all of the loneliness and the yearning for what was or what could be that we heard throughout Be the Cowboy, it ends with a sad resignation of what love is: You can’t keep it, and you will change, but it existed and that’s not so bad.