Pop Gives Mitski a Larger Canvas on ‘Be the Cowboy’
By Jon Pareles
Indie rock was just a detour for Mitski. On “Be the Cowboy,” her fifth album, she embraces the possibilities of full-scale pop — not to formularize her emotions, but to give them an even larger canvas. It’s exactly the right choice.
Since releasing her 2014 album, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” Mitski has built a following the old-fashioned way: touring constantly and wielding her big hot-pink bass guitar, singing about torturously ambivalent relationships and her own evolving identity — as a woman growing up and finding her own path, as an ambitious artist and, in songs like her online hit “Your Best American Girl” from her 2016 album, “Puberty 2,” as a Japanese-American. (Her last name is Miyawaki.) Glancing back at 1990s songwriters like Liz Phair, her songs often surged with distorted guitar: a token of hands-on effort and untamed sound, of here-and-now sincerity.
Yet Mitski was never a primitivist or indie-rock die-hard. The two albums she released before “Makeout Creek,” while she attended the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music, feature piano-centered chamber pop, with the scrupulously graceful, long-lined melodies and asymmetrical structures that she would also bring to her rock songs.
Meanwhile, songwriters like Lorde — who has toured arenas with Mitski as an opening act — and, from the artier end of the spectrum, St. Vincent, have made it abundantly clear that pop’s computerized, synthetic tools don’t have to limit self-expression. “Be the Cowboy,” produced by Patrick Hyland and largely played by Mr. Hyland and Mitski, brings on the synthesizers and programmed drums, but it also provides close-ups of Mitski’s voice, setting aside the previous albums’ double-tracking and guitar noise. The trappings have changed, but not the intimacy.
“My God, I’m so lonely,” Mitski sings in “Nobody,” with her voice climbing as piano chords descend, and soon she realizes, “I know no one will save me/I just need someone to kiss.” But it’s the album’s most insistently catchy song; the beat turns into a guitar-scrubbing disco track on the way to a paradoxically buoyant chorus that simply repeats the word “nobody,” sounding far from forlorn.
Mitski’s songs about love are a tangle of mixed messages in precise, idiosyncratic packages. The album opens with eerie, sustained organ tones in “Geyser,” as Mitski intones, “You’re my number one” and vows fidelity as a processional beat arrives behind her; halfway through, guitars and strings suddenly charge in as she warns about her suppressed urges: “Feel it bubbling from below.”
She sounds composed, almost casual, as she sings, “I know that I ended it, but/Why won’t you chase after me?” in “Why Didn’t You Stop Me,” which dovetails bits of indie-rock guitar into a Kraftwerk-like pulse. In “Lonesome Love,” which hints at country, she girds herself to “win” by putting on perfect makeup to dump someone, only to end up in a taxi the next morning wondering, “Why am I lonely for lonesome love?”
Throughout the album, love can be a physical need, a compulsion, a comfort, a bittersweet memory and a bulwark against mortality. Mitski begins “Me and My Husband,” a fantasy of domestic solidarity, over bouncy piano chords with a hint of the Beatles, observing, “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute/And then I’ll be nothing forever.” And as the album ends, with the electric-piano ballad “Two Slow Dancers,” she imagines an elderly couple on a dance floor, reflecting on lost youth, with the last chord unresolved. On this album, even more than she has before, Mitski makes the music her partner.