Mitski Miyawaki has made a career out of an emotionally exhausting songbook. Her music combines a gorgeous, expressive voice, heartfelt lyrics, and regular explosions of sound from her guitar. On 2016’s Puberty 2 Mitski reached her biggest audience yet, writing anthems for a quarter-life crisis; like the name suggests, the record chronicles the sort of melodramatic journey of growth and discovery you’d expect from a high-schooler. As a title, Be the Cowboy suggests a more cavalier attitude this time around, but, with exceptions, Mitski’s emotional palette uses similar shades. She investigates loneliness and lost or broken love with stunning clarity.
Opening track Geyser is the perfect appetiser. Entering over a brooding synth and disrupted by jarring glitches, Mistki sings, “You’re my number one, you’re the one I want”. The song then mellows out into a gentle piano ballad for a few seconds before exploding into the type of rock anthem that has made her famous. The energy is incredible, and then – it’s over. Mitski pulls this trick over and over again on the album. Of the 14 tracks here, only two breach the three-minute mark: the centrepiece Nobody and the atmospheric closer Two Slow Dancers. And it isn’t as if she lacks ideas.
Every song is packed full of sonic shifts, surprising chord changes, inventive instrumentation and tone. “I’m not a white guy noodling on a guitar for 45 minutes”, Mitski said in one interview, but the song lengths feel less a function of audience and context than they do a vital stylistic choice. The characters that inhabit her songs are almost without exception paranoid and claustrophobic. In Old Friend she sings about meeting an ex for coffee: “Every time I drive through the city where you’re from I squeeze a little” – you can practically hear the pressure and tensed muscles. Even in ostensibly successful relationships, life always seems to be falling apart. “I fell in love with a war,” she sings in A Pearl. “Nobody told me it ended”. When you’ve spent so much of your life battling to be okay, you can only spend the moments of peace waiting for the next blow.
Often Mitski hangs around long enough to deliver a wry and devastating punch like “Nobody butters me up like you, and nobody fucks me like me”, wails on her guitar for a few bars, and then presses the stop button on the recorder. There is no time to regain your breath, and by the time you make it to the end of the album you feel as if you’ve gone twelve rounds with Ali. At the start of Me and My Husband she even exhales exhaustedly, following with “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute” – implicit under this manic, whistle-stop tour of dysfunctional relationships is the knowledge that none of us has much time on this earth, and if you want to be heard you’d better do it fast. Perhaps the most manic song of the bunch is Nobody: in a song of dissonant contrasts, Mistki sings, “My God I’m so lonely”. Stylistically it feels like an old disco classic, all syncopated rhythm guitars and hand-claps – think Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, except here the girl is in the middle of a psychotic break. By the time the final chorus hits its second key-change you almost start to feel a panic attack coming on yourself, and the final, horror-film singsong is the sonic equivalent of a Cheshire cat’s deranged smile.
The rare moments of calm are equally affecting, most notably the two closing tracks. Blue Light starts in a jaunty vein before being washed out by reverb, Mitski repeating “Are you that blue light?” As another tale of loneliness it is completely different from Nobody. In its closing strains of strings and synthesisers you can practically see her standing at the window, lit only by the moon and the television in the corner on standby. Two Slow Dancers is an absolutely gorgeous closer; as someone who often traffics in melodrama, Mitski still knows when to keep her distance. The keyboard is subtle and muted, the melody full of anti-climactic turns. “It would be a hundred time easier if we were young again,” she sings, “but as it is – and it is – we’re just two slow dancers, last ones out.” Mitski isn’t looking for any grand resolution here. She just leaves us with the image of two old, old friends in each other’s arms, savouring one last moment of painful beauty.