Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss Mitski’s new sounds on her fifth album Be the Cowboy, her self-possessed writing style, and her place in the world of indie rock.
Featured here are writers Mariel Fechik, James Crowley, Francesca Rose,, Aaron Scobie, and Adrian Vargas.
How does Be the Cowboy serve as a follow-up to Puberty 2? Where does Be the Cowboy fit in Mitski’s larger discography, including her SUNY Purchase-era albums?
Mariel: To me, this album feels like a tightening of focus. In many ways, it feels like everything she’s written up to now has been a precursor to the sounds on this album. Be the Cowboy contains the rawness of Puberty 2 and Bury Me at Makeout Creek like Francesca mentions, but it also has the lushness that is so prevalent on, well, Lush. Her classical influences are less present now, but I appreciate the subtleties with which she uses them to add interest to what might otherwise be regular old indie rock. There’s Bowie in this album, there’s 70s Hollywood disco, there are dance synths, and there’s ethereal, otherworldly beauty. These things somehow work in tandem to create what I think is her most realized album to date.
James: This feels like a continuation of both Puberty 2 but also Retired from Sad. This feels like Mitski’s “pop” album. Even though this album still exists within a realm of indie rock, it also seems to be segueing into a newer more alt-pop direction. She still utilizes the band sounds that she had on her previous 2 albums, but it feels like this feels like she’s really brushing up against the edge of indie rock into pop territory. The melodies seem to harken back more to her classical albums, most definitely there were moments that I wanted to make sure I hadn’t accidentally tuned into “Goodbye My Danish Sweetheart.”
Francesca: It feels like a shift, with the more poppy and slightly disco sound, but a progressive shift that sees her exploring new ways to express the honest emotions she’s so great at doing. Puberty 2 and Bury Me at Makeout Creek were kind of similar with their rawness so I appreciate the direction of this album. It’s like a rejection of the connotations that have been attached to her as well as a way of emphasising the complexity of our feelings- the way that things can seem uplifting and celebratory but may just be a facade for the loneliness underneath. That being said her previous sound is still very much there, in the second parts of “Geyser” and ‘Pink the Night’ with their rise in intensity, for example. Be the Cowboy is an accumulation of all her sounds (the stripped back stuff of the SUNY Purchase era too) with a tone that feels very now.
Aaron: I think Puberty 2 was coming from a place very personal. And from that Mitski was relaying those feelings and anxieties in the form of something confessional. With Be the Cowboy, we see her shifting in how she wishes to present herself. It’s almost as if she is finally pushing herself to make music in styles that she wants to; experimenting with different forms of pop from disco to synth-wave.
Adrian: As a follow-up, I think it shows a broader arrangement of styles that she wants to perform and incorporate into her music, something I believe she has wanted to do for some time. Be The Cowboy feels like it took themes from all of her previous albums. From Puberty 2, Mitski has the indie rock sounds prevalent on the album with songs like “Geyser” and then there are the pop melodies that started showing in Retired from Sad, New Career in Business making a big return with songs like “Nobody” and “Me and My Husband.” Additionally, Be The Cowboy harks back to her first album, Lush, through ballads like “Two Slow Dancers.” She has created a mélange of styles with pop being a fairly big focus while still retaining the indie rock melodies from her past two albums.
This album is very concise in many ways. Does it feel complete?
Mariel: Upon first listen, I was shocked to realize that the album was over after only 31 minutes. At first, I was kind of bothered by this. I’m always frustrated when artists release short albums after long waits or buildups. After some thought though, I realized that all these songs, in their brevity, are like little bite-size pieces of emotion and narrative. After each song, I feel like like it really was the perfect amount of time. Fittingly, the longest song is the last, the swaying “Two Slow Dancers,” clocking it at just a second under four minutes. She managed to do something that usually would irritate me in a beautiful and complete way.
James: Absolutely, it seems that Mitski is unafraid to cut a song short if it feels complete or build on one if it doesn’t. I’m surprised by songs like “Lonesome Love” that feel entirely formed but clocks in at under two minutes. Some of the shorter songs serve more as interludes like “Come into the Water,” but “Lonesome Love” is so good and really is one of my favorite tracks.
Francesca: In terms of its making, I guess it does. It feels polished and well conceptualised. The closing track ‘Two Slow Dancers’ touches on the innocence and cliches of young love which I think is a fitting way to end. It’s reflective as though older Mitski is looking back and putting all her (lack of) romance into perspective. However, with all of Mitski’s stuff, it’s like it’s over too quickly. A sudden spew of thoughts, tears etc. So I first got to the end of Be the Cowboy and was like oh. It’s done.
Aaron: I realized about halfway through just how many songs, I had listen to. And I do appreciate it. Some of my favorite songs from other artists are their shorter one. Mitski found a way to express what she wants in that 2 minute mark, so why prolong to ending another 2 or 3 minutes? This album also feels like a collection of short stories, where her previous albums could be comparable to novels. Sure their are themes connecting each song with the others, but some of these songs can stand alone. And in that, yes, the album does feel complete, because the songs themselves feel complete.
Adrian: I was also pretty shocked with the short runtime of the album but within those thirty minutes she has put an immense amount of herself into each track. This is one of her most personal albums and no song feels too long nor short, and with it closing on “Two Slow Dancers” I felt it ran the appropriate amount of time and was truly complete.
Which song stuck with you the most upon first listen and why?
Francesca: “Me and My Husband” is really fun. That sigh right at the start and the way it’s such a sad song but delivered almost comically as though laughing at how ridiculous realities can be.
Mariel: I think there were a couple, but “A Horse Named Cold Air” was the first that made me really stop and look up from what I was doing. Even the name alone is so striking and odd, and the lyrics are so poetic and beautiful. The piano is the perfect complement to the haunting atmosphere her voice creates, and I’m so glad it stayed only with the piano the whole time. It almost reminded me of a Neko Case song, which in my book is potentially the highest praise of all time.
James: “Nobody” is incredibly catchy, but “Pink in the Night” sounds like it could’ve been from Bury Me at Makeout Creek but in a totally brand new way. All that being said, like Francesca, “Me and My Husband” really made me stop and re-listen over and over when I was giving my first listen to the album.
Aaron: In that first play through, “A Horse Named Cold Air” just beat me. I guess, what stood out was that slow and low piano that drones and echos beside her voice, which in itself is restrained and controlled, but so, so powerful.
I thought I’d traveled a long way
But I had circled
The same old sin
Then she goes into an arpeggios of ohhh and ewww that crawled over my skin.
Adrian: “Two Slow Dancers” was an instant love for me. When I saw she released a new single a few days before the release I was eager to give it a listen and when I put the track on I was blown away. Sincere, catchy, and a stunning vocal performance combine to make a track that is an instant classic.
Lyrically, what are some of your favorite moments in the album?
Francesca: There’s “Nobody,” which right from the moment it was released as a single just grabs you with its directness.
My god, I’m so lonely
So I open a window
To hear sounds of people
Again, there’s that juxtaposition because the sound is so up-tempo and kind of glamorously dreamy.
“Pink in the Night” is intimately sweet, like lying in bed alone, the bedding over the head like a tent, thinking while the heart flutters with confused loved-up excitability.
I hear my heart breaking tonight
Do you hear it too?
It’s like a summer shower
With every drop of rain singing
Mariel: To be honest, though I love the complexity of some of the lyrics here, my favorites have to be from “Two Slow Dancers”:
Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here?
It’s funny how they’re all the same
It’s funny how you always remember
And we’ve both done it all
a hundred times before
In this brief moment, Mitski recalls a hundred million school dances, and that small sensory moment is all I needed to be pulled back. The opening of this song is so nostalgic and bittersweet, and the repeated, “We’re two slow dancers, last ones out,” just strikes a nerve for me. It’s so simple and sweet.
Nobody butters me up like you,
And nobody fucks me like me
That’s unlike anything we’ve heard from Mitski, and it sticks out on first listen. It’s so damn good. It rolls out of your mouth like a great Kanye lyric might.
Aaron: “Two Slow Dancers” is just that good to me. She grounded us in a physical place, grabbed our hand, and walked us into the chorus:
It would be a hundred times easier
If we were young again
But as it is, and it is
We’re just two slow dancers, last ones out
We’re two slow dancers, last ones out
She is capturing the emotional dredd of soon-to-be loneliness and it is so very real and human. So captivating. Easily making me tear up every time I hear that ending.
To think that we could stay the same
Adrian: The track “Old Friend” stands out to me.
I haven’t told anyone
Just like we promised
Every time I drive through the city where you’re from
I squeeze a little
The theme of this sort of unspoken old love shines prominently with this line, showing Mitski’s anger at denying these feelings and simply wanting to squeeze her steering wheel in frustration. It painted such a vivid image in my head and the the track as a whole does this perfectly.
Stylistically, Mitski is hard to pin down. Where would you place her in the pantheon of indie-rock?
Francesca: In Be the Cowboy, I got some St. Vincent vibes with the combination of guitars, electro groove and unconcerned straight-to-the-point delivery of lyrics. Also, songs like ‘Old Friend’ and ‘Me and My Husband’ reminded me a bit of Rufus Wainwright with the sing-song conversational approach.
Mariel: As someone’s who’s wandered away from indie rock in the last few years, Mitski was a welcome return when I first listened to her. Her music is so special in a way that I don’t think truly anyone else in the genre is currently achieving. She takes from all the past styles that have swirled in and out of the genre and turns them into her own with an ease and grace that is truly unique to her. It’s hard for me to compare her to anyone – even to someone like St. Vincent, who is totally unique in her own right. But I have to say, I like this album more than Masseduction.
James: Francesca nailed it with St. Vincent, but I think that this could be a turning point for Mitski’s career as a whole. She just toured with Lorde, who had one of the biggest pop albums of last year. I think we need to wait to see what the larger reaction to this is, because Mitski could become a St. Vincent type-pop tinged indie rock, or she could become someone like Lorde, a pop artist that appeals to the mainstream and has the respect of indieheads. That said, I think she’ll always be welcome from the pop-punk and emo scene that she’s always been adjacent to. She fits comfortably next to The Hotelier and Waxahatchee, but she could still open for one of the world’s biggest popstars.
Adrian: I find that she is striking a nice balance with a lot of genres, most recently the pop sphere. She is proving to have a talent with indie pop tunes and is making a huge impact on the scene. As time progresses I believe this album will give rise to a new pop side of Mitski, especially after her recent tour with Lorde. However, as James said, she will always be welcome within the indie rock arena and I do not see her fully removing herself from that group nor sound. I see her occupying more areas very soon with Be The Cowboy.
In an interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen, Mitski says, “There’s a sort of desperation in my music, I think.” It’s strange, dark, beautiful, and can be off-putting. What is it that ultimately draws you most to Mitski’s music?
Mariel: When I first heard Mitski, it was her voice that first attracted me. It soothes at the same time that it’s a force, as siren-like as it is a lullaby. But I think what ultimately draws me in is how compelling she is in every aspect. It’s her voice, it’s her writing style, it’s her ability to be completely true to herself without compromising her sound for what is “popular” or “what will sell.” She sells because she’s an arrestingly talented musician who is grounded in what makes her an artist, in the most literal sense of the word. Her albums feel like canvases that she’s spilled her entire heart onto, and I will forever be appreciative of that.
James: On Be The Cowboy, I’ve been really drawn into the sonic quality, but Mitski is something of a poet on top of being a musician. Even if her music isn’t necessarily confessional, she still tells relatable stories. It’s like the Mountain Goats. Even if the stories aren’t always necessarily her baring her soul, she still writes songs that I can find aspects of myself in, and Be The Cowboy is no different. It’s her telling real stories, whether it’s the ballad, reflecting on young love, “Two Slow Dancers,” or the post-punk grooving, emotional pounding on “Washing Machine Heart.”
Francesca: Strange, dark and beautiful are three adjectives that when merged together are always going to be welcomed by my ears. The ‘desperation’ is exactly what draws me to her. I know Mitski HATES her music being referenced to being like a diary but it was this that I initially loved about her sound because it felt so unapologetically angsty and candid. In Be The Cowboy she seems to writing about different narratives and I enjoy how, alongside the sound, it sort of reads like a retro movie script.
Aaron: In indie rock, with their being such a plethora of unique and talents people, it is hard to break in and make something fresh. What I appreciate about Mitski is she isn’t afraid to take in influence and use it. She also is very straight forward with what her songs are about. Nobody is just a song about being lonely. Two Slow Dancers is just a song about wanting to stay with someone in the moment forever. What makes these songs so good, is that word people attach to her: raw. Mitski is singing about very human desires aside from love. She looks at the complex natures of existence and breaks them down to something simple and palatable. There’s a beauty and attraction in doing so.
Adrian: The first Mitsi album I heard was Bury Me At Makeout Creek and the raw, energetic vocals and melodies were the first items I noticed with her music. That quality of raw music with heart poured into each lyric has yet to change and I don’t see it disappearing anytime soon. She’s unafraid (or at least does a great job at not showing any fear) of showcasing her emotions and allowing her music to share these thoughts and feelings. She’s not only someone who produces catchy as hell melodies but also writes with a level of detail not often seen. As a person and musician Mitski is honest, those quirks in her work drew me in with Be The Cowboy only serving to grow my affinity for Mitski and her music.
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