During her appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Mitski clarified that her album title is based on the icon of the American cowboy – not the modern working kind, but rather the mythological western hero kind. She romanticizes the Marlboro man – brash, unapologetic, confident. While Mitski isn’t exactly putting a ten-gallon hat for any of these songs (though “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light” flirt with alt-country vibes), Mitski returns more confident and charismatic than ever with Be the Cowboy.
Mitski’s lyrics remain the same thematically, weaving various stories of ex-lovers, infatuation, and loneliness, but the methods of delivery are far more varied as Be the Cowboy displays the boldest artistic directions Mitski has taken yet. For example, the amount of genre-hopping is staggering. “Pink in the Night” is a grand and operatic love song, “Washing Machine Heart” is a driving synth-pop hit, and “Geyser” and “Remember My Name” are classic Mitski – biting guitar riffs and stadium-ready drums. Each song has its own personality, yet the record never feels jumbled.
Mitski even confronts her demons differently this time around. On her previous album Puberty 2, Mitski was surrounded by distortion and drum machines. On Be the Cowboy, she and longtime producer Patrick Hyland open up to cleaner production habits, exchanging fuzzy aesthetics in favor more polished pop, making sure that Mitski’s commanding voice and heart-wrenching lyrics are always at the front of the line. Cuts like “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” and “Remember My Name” have the sheen of the latest St. Vincent and Lorde records without sacrificing any of Mitski’s signature grit. “Lonesome Love” in particular features Mitski with some of her most intimate lyrics yet, proclaiming perhaps the most incisive line on the record – “Nobody butters me like you, and nobody f–ks me likes me.”
“Nobody” is the centerpiece of Be the Cowboy, disco-paced with bouncy guitar and piano lines. The desperate lyrics in the verse (“I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me / Guess I’m a coward”) lead up to the chorus of a repeated “nobody, nobody, nobody.” But by the time the chorus rings around, Mitski doesn’t seem to agonize her state, sounding almost celebratory as she plays with the repeated confirmations of her loneliness like a daredevil playing with a sharpened knife. Be the Cowboy’s central theme is longing for human connection and identity, yet it turns out that Mitski’s familiarity with loneliness might be the most concrete form of self-identification she has, and it’s her willingness to express her loneliness that allows so many fans to connect with her work. It’s this sharp candor and brutal self-awareness that makes Mitski so captivating and Be the Cowboy such a memorable experience.