“Believing in the transcendental power of the image”, Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick, a fictional series of obsessive love letters to the clichéd, all-American Marlboro man of its title, “is like wanting to be […] a Cowboy”. Be The Cowboy, the fifth album from Japanese-American rock artist Mitski, wants just that. The title comes from a jokey self-empowerment phrase 27-year-old Mitski Miyawaki would repeat to herself: “Be the cowboy you want to see in the world”.
“With a lot of the romantic infatuations I’ve had,” she said, announcing the album, “when I look back, I wonder: Did I want them or did I want to be them? Did I love them or did I want to absorb whatever power they had? I decided I could just be my own cowboy.”
Her acclaimed fourth album, Puberty 2, gave Mitski a reputation for great rock songs about longing and loneliness. On “Your Best American Girl”, she sings “You’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl”. Be the Cowboy , then, nods again to fantasies of a new identity: the swaggering white male, who can believe in his own myth.
The record features 14 dense, precise, tightly constructed songs – most refuse a traditional verse/chorus structure for shorter, stranger vignettes. Plenty return to themes of infatuation and isolation she’s become known for: Mitski has a knack for compressing these feelings into a single, devastating, melodramatic phrase. “I could stare at your back all day,” she aches on “Pink in the Night”. “Washing Machine Heart” begins, “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart baby, bang it up inside”. “I call you, to see you again / So I can win, and this can finally end,” she sings on country ballad “Lonesome Love”, “And you say hello / And I lose”. There are no layered harmonies adorning the record. Her voice – arrow-like: exact, quivering – stands alone.
As these feelings become increasingly desperate, songs get more pop-infused. “Nobody”, a deceptively catchy song about being alone at Christmas first written on a children’s Toys R Us play piano, is peppered with disco flourishes as its lyrics get more bleak. As she sings, “And still nobody wants me,” the line is punctuated by a cheery double clap. There’s a sense then, that Mitski knows, as Kraus does, that sometimes, all this “cowboy/loner stuff seems silly”.
But the record’s sense of longing extends beyond the romantic, morphing into something closer to ambition. If music is Mitski’s calling, on Be The Cowboy it calls to her in the most literal sense. On “Geyser”, the record’s eruptive, cathartic opening track, she sings, “Hear it call, hear it call, hear it call to me / Constantly”. Songwriting is framed as compulsive to the point of being self-destructive: “Hear the harmony / Only when it’s harming me”. Songs dissolve into reverberations of the song-writing process itself. “Washing Machine Heart” lapses into solfège syllables: “Do ti me / Why not me?” she repeats. On “Blue Light”, Mitski imagines herself “walking round the house naked / Silver in the night / Singing do do do do do do do…”
Ultimately, the desire that burns most fiercely on this album is the desire to create lasting work. “I need something bigger than the sky,” Mitski sings on “Remember By Name”. “Just how many stars will I need to hang around me / To finally call it heaven?” This is big, existential, open plain longing: the kind you can ride on horseback into.
This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad