Review: Mitski’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ Makes Feelings of Powerlessness Loom Large

Her third LP sees her continue to emerge as a visionary singer-songwriter

When Lorde took Mitski Miyawaki out on her Melodrama tour this year as an opening act, it was a perfect match: Two smart, intense women addressing heartache, class issues, and other emotional shitstorms in miniaturist detail and at maximalist scale, albeit with different tools. Some fans may’ve been surprised at how easily Mitski’s music translated to huge arena stages. But as her third LP proves, making complex feelings of powerlessness loom as large as movie kaijus isn’t just a signature talent — it can seem like the main point and power of what Miyawaki does.

Take “Pink in the Night,” a standout on Be the Cowboy. It opens with a sexy tableaux of loneliness (“I glow pink in the night in my room/I’ve been blossoming alone over you”), then compares the singer’s heartbreak to “a summer shower/With every drop of rain singing/ ‘I love you I love you I love you.’” It might be a maudlin diary entry but for the spectacular drama of the delivery, Miyawaki’s voice unfurling in a slow goth processional, with a cathedral organ tone out of some fantasy wedding sequence building over a relentless kickdrum, cresting into a reverie of staring at a beloved’s back while hungering for another chance: “I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right/Can I try again try again try again…and again and again and again,” she begs, her clear alto soaring through the chemtrails. It doesn’t just dignify a lovers desperation — it makes it awe-inspiring.

Sometimes — as with “Your Best American Girl,” the complicated crown jewel of her 2016 LP Puberty 2 — the emotions are less clear-cut. Starting with its ungrammatical title, “Me and My Husband” comes on like a straightforward marriage parody, chipper Beatle-esque melody punctuated by slightly catatonic piano chords and a circus-organ flourish. But there’s genuine sadness mixed with the irony, and the narrator channels it all. “I am the idiot with the painted face/ In the corner, taking up space,” sings Miyawaki, before the not-inconsequential caveat: ”But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved.” A more elliptical approach to Liz Phair’s predicament in “Polyester Bride,” its dual consciousness lets you take either side and still be right (or wrong).

It’s not all so dire. “Nobody” snaps itself out of its solitude to croon over campy Euro-disco — “Venus, planet of love/Was destroyed by global warming,” the singer observes in a burst of cosmic sulking. “Washing Machine Heart” (“Toss your dirty shoes in…”) is synth-pop with a “Miss Mary Mack” handclap undertow that comes across as a conflation of playful lust and maternal instinct.  And in the loping folk-rock strummer “Lonesome Love,” the singer struts into combat in makeup and heels only to concede defeat, announcing with perfect tragicomic timing, that “nobody fucks me like… me.”

There may be nothing explicitly political in the songs on Be the Cowboy. But there’s plenty implicit, from the DIY American mythology of the title, to the way the songs validate voices that are shaky, hurting, irrational, and damaged, while also being smart, wry, powerful, and deserving of love. There are no cowboys riding in to save the day anytime soon anywhere, it seems. But Mitski will remind you that saving yourself is usually a good first priority.