Be the cowboy. It’s a hell of a phrase. The cowboy is the archetypal figure of the American mythos: the self-determining young traveler, wandering the expanse of the frontier, beholden to no one. Even if you’ve never watched a Western, the appeal of the cowboy is probably somewhere baked into your soul. If you’re American — if you’ve ever really thought about America — it’s in there. It’s never leaving. In the movies, and in the attending myths, the cowboy breezes into town, gets into adventures, meets a girl, and then rides off into the sunset. The challenge, then, is to not be the girl of the story, pining for that romantic figure who will never return. The challenge is to be the cowboy, always wandering, never settling.
Mitski Miyawaki is a cowboy. She grew up around the world — in Japan, in Turkey, in China, in Congo, in places around these United States. These days, she makes her living as a touring musician, rolling into the endless procession of one town after another, playing her songs to the people who come to hear them. She has said that she won’t even keep an apartment. And in a lot of ways, Be The Cowboy, her new album, is about the mental wages of that life — about making the decision, again and again, to keep moving, and about how maybe intimacy is a delusion as well as an urge.
In the press release for Be The Cowboy, Mitski says that she “experimented in narrative and fiction.” The characters in her songs may or may not be wholly invented. She may be focusing on different aspects of her own personality, or interrogating the unspoken feelings that her rootless life may kick up now and again. Whatever the case, Mitski isn’t a confessional songwriter. She’s meticulous and precise, writing words that can be discomfiting in their brutal clarity. Consider “Me And My Husband,” a song about the impermanence of life: “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute / And then I’ll be nothing forever / And all of my memories / And all of the things I have seen / Will be gone / With my eyes, with my body, with me.” Mitski’s narrator can deal with her own transitory nature because she and her husband are together, “at least in this lifetime”: “I am the idiot with the painted face / In the corner, taking up space / But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved.” You should probably be aware that Mitski Miyawaki does not have a husband.
A lot of the lyrics on Be The Cowboy are about relationships, and about the power dynamics that come with them. Sometimes, they’re about relationships that are already over: “I know I ended it / But why didn’t you chase after me?” Sometimes, they’re about relationships that really should end, where the participants are just negotiating who wins and who loses: “Nobody butters me up like you / And nobody fucks me like me.” Sometimes, they’re about relationships that are still happening but are in the process of drifting off into nothingness: “Sorry I don’t want your touch / It’s not that I don’t want you / Sorry I can’t take your touch / It’s just that I fell in love with a war… There’s a hole that you fill.” And sometimes, they are about the total lack of relationships, about deep and unsettling solitude: “My God, I’m so lonely / So I open the window / To hear the sounds of people.”
Mitski delivers these words with all the detached precision of an NPR host. She modulates her voice, keeping it on an even keel, never reaching for the drama of catharsis. Even when she sings in the first person, she sounds like a narrator, watching all of this unfold from afar. Mitski recorded the album with producer Patrick Hyland, her regular collaborator, and the two of them played almost every instrument on the album. On Puberty 2, Mistki’s last album, they made sounds that often approached indie rock, especially on the sweeping and dizzying single “Your Best American Girl.” There’s no “Your Best American Girl” on Be The Cowboy. There’s precious little that could be considered indie rock. Instead, there’s a very oblique form of pop music, one that organizes itself entirely around Mitski’s voice.
Calling Be The Cowboy “pop music” seems wrong, since Mitski isn’t concerned with structure. A lot of the time, she writes songs with no choruses. She puts line breaks in strange places. She doesn’t worry about making words rhyme. Instead, though, the songs play out like free-verse takes on pop songs. The sounds are sharp and crystalline, full of fussily detailed blooms of synth. There are bits and pieces of disco and moments where the strobing keyboards sound a bit like what you might hear on a Robyn song. There are precious few guitars. Mitski has said that she wanted to resist the idea of developing a signature sound, of falling back on the indie rock that she perfected on Puberty 2. Mission accomplished. She’s found a whole new sound, just as glaringly observant and forceful as anything she’s done in the past. By the next album, she’ll have probably found whole new ways to fuck us up.
It’s probably deeply simplistic to talk about any of Mitski’s music as “personal” — a word so nebulous as to be entirely meaningless. Instead, Mitski’s music is the type that keeps us at arm’s length. It makes sense. As a mixed-race Asian American woman who grew up largely outside the USA, Mitski is an outsider many times over within the independent music universe. She spent the spring playing arenas, opening for Lorde, which had to be even more alienating. Her music isn’t about letting us in, about forcing us to feel empathy. It’s about making us think about ourselves more than anything.
But there’s one moment on Be The Cowboy that seems expressive in ways that are specific to Mitski herself, to her life as a rootless traveling performer. That moment is “Remember My Name,” a song built on a guitar riff so heavily processed that it might as well be a synth. Over that opening riff, Mitski sings, “I gave too much of my heart tonight / Can you come to where I’m staying and / Make some extra love / That I can save for tomorrow’s show?” Then, immediately after: “‘Cause I need someone to remember my name / After all that I can do for them is done / I need someone to remember me.” That’s a stark and human plea. And I can only hope that Mitksi’s not seriously worried about this. After an album like this one, I can’t imagine anyone ever forgetting her name.
Be The Cowboy is out 8/17 on Dead Oceans. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Ariana Grande’s as-yet-unheard pop blockbuster attempt Sweetener.
• Death Cab For Cutie’s searchingly emotive Thank You For Today.
• Animal Collective’s deep-sea ambient travelogue Tangerine Reef.
• Oh Sees’ Sabbath-influenced psych-rocker Smote Reverser.
• Former Youth Lagoon mastermind Trevor Powers’ government-name debut Mulberry Violence.
• Roy Montgomery’s dreamy, collab-heavy Suffuse.
• Uniform’s Greg Fox-powered noise-rocker The Long Walk.
• Former Southeast Engine frontman Adam Remnant’s solo debut Sourwood.
• Papa M’s reliably ruminative A Broke Moon Rises.
• Still Corners’ summery, atmospheric Slow Air.
• Former Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori’s solo album The Diet.
• Sulaco’s grindcore rager The Prize.
• Cults’ full-length cover of the Motels’ self-titled 1979 album.
• Protomartyr and Spray Paint’s split EP Irony Prompts A Party Rat.
• Babehoven’s Sleep EP.