On the cover of 2016’s Puberty 2, Mitski Miyawaki stands in a meadow wearing an oversized white tee, her face painted the same color. She’s half-turned toward the camera, staring down the viewer in what feels like an image of rebirth.
In many ways, it was. Puberty 2 capped off a process of growth that began with Lush (2012) and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business (2013), the two self-released albums that Mitski made as student projects in college. The first was mournful, the second more pop-inflected; on both albums, each song sounds attempts a new style, whether it’s the echoey chamber choir of “Abbey” or the reckless runs of “Strawberry Blond.” The brief, self-contained songs sound now like sketches for what Mitski’s latest release, Be the Cowboy (out August 17th), became: a thread of tales interwoven by themes of loneliness, love and longing. These early albums, made when she was free to experiment without a wide audience, show us the foundation of Mitski’s voice. Now, we hear it in its most mature form.
2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski’s first album on a label, was radically different from the two that preceded it. She stripped down to fewer instruments, which gave the album a more live, sentimental sound. Bury Me was a breakthrough for Mitski, both musically and in her career: The album served as a necessary pause for reflection. What in her previous music worked, and what did she want it to be?
Puberty 2 was the response to that question, the first step in reintegrating the best elements of Lush and Retired from Sad back into her work. Highlights like “Happy” and “Dan the Dancer” reintroduced explicit characters. They also brought back the whimsical edge of early songs like “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” where you get a sense that Mitski’s voice is falling and catching itself ceaselessly.
But while Puberty 2 brought back persona, the characters were easy to overlook next to vivid, anthemic rock songs like “Your Best American Girl.” Be the Cowboy‘s sound, on the other hand, is layered with nostalgia, from Broadway-esque inflections to disco, making the fiction far easier to recognize as she dips into eras that we associate with older stories.
On the cover for Be the Cowboy, we see her up close. Mitski’s face fills the frame. Her eyeliner and lipstick are perfectly done. With every album, it feels like we’re getting a little closer to her face. All the same, the image’s artifice is clear – there’s a pair of tweezers placing her lashes. In interviews, she’s made it clear that Be the Cowboy is about playing a role that she craves for her songs’ protagonists, a female icon of lawlessness and power that acts as a white, male cowboy would: without care or consequence, without regret.
What’s most daring about Be the Cowboy is how varied the tracks are, and how brief, all around two minutes. Whether Mitski touches on domestic solitude (the wife in “Me and My Husband”) or how love both changes and remains (the old couple in “Two Slow Dancers”), beneath the veneer of character is a distinct, relatable emotion. She’s crafted these characters to tell a story, rather than using abstractions to tell us what she means.
Mitski’s lyrics have always reckoned with the elusive: In “Geyser,” she keeps “turning down the hands that/Beckon me to come,” and in “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” she comments, “I know that I ended it, but/Why won’t you chase after me?” Her music sounds like one hand reaching to the distance: Look at “Nobody,” a disco-esque dance number that revels in its loneliness. But as she turns away from the hands reaching for her, she’s outstretching her own to the sky. As she tells us again and again on this album, all she really wants is a kiss.
Where her first four albums reckoned with loneliness externally, Be the Cowboy finally looks at loneliness from the inside. On “Nobody,” she’s dancing through it; on “Lonesome Love” she’s in a droll mood, mentioning the taxi ride home she’s “so very paying for.” The pop gloss she’s brought back from her Retired from Sad days, including its sudden key changes and earnest chromatic leaps, brings a frantic energy to the loneliness she’s always been singing about.
Mitski has said in recent interviews that when listeners view her songs as diary entries, that disregards her act of composition. In Be the Cowboy, the composition is clear. The songs that need the sound of a piano to convey a slow creeping malaise get piano arrangements; the lyrics that call for vocal swings have them. We laugh and tear up at certain songs not only from the lyrics, but from the way she has built the melody with and around them. The music is entirely under her control – and isn’t that what it means to be the cowboy?