Updated: Nov 29, 2018
The weight that raw charm and relatability carries in singer-songwriter material is no joke. Of course, ability to hold a tune comes first; talent and technical proficiency is essential no matter your niche. But since these artists’ appeal decidedly comes from lyrics and vocal deliveries, something fresh about your musical repertoire is necessary if you don’t want to drown in a sea of countless others doing the same. There seems to be an abundance of sub-par releases that address textbook themes of love, heartbreak and vulnerability in generic ways in 2018’s musical landscape; this makes it all the more crucial that artists push past what’s expected. Otherwise, who’s going to feel naturally drawn to you?
This idea is exactly what drew my eyes to Mitski Miyawaki after the release of Puberty 2, back in 2016. After two full-length LPs, the singer finally hit the nail on the head to what could make her voice stand out. The record is comprised of gritty rock riffs with a lo-fi edge and piercing emotional potency that could kick you in the gut. It gives the listener the experience of living through her eyes for a day, with every downfall coming full-force. The crushing realities she faces as she tries to find her place in professional relationships, romantic relationships, and the wall between her genuine self and the mask she puts on for the rest of the world is something a wide range of people can resonate with- her intimacy with her audience and raw emotion shows exactly what makes Mitski special. These themes wouldn’t have felt the same delivered by anyone else.
In her next project, I was ready for her to compile all of these strengths and bring them home in a fully fleshed-out end product that kept that sense of relatability and rawness. And Be The Cowboy is an array of vibrant soundplay stripped to its most concise. Its sophisticated arrangements show sprinkles of art pop, indie rock and new wave. There’s traditional balladry in tracks like “A Horse Named Cold Air” and “Two Slow Dancers,” enchanting ambience on “Pink In The Night,” and utterly chilling moments such as in “Blue Light,” where the instrumentation comes to a halt and what’s left is simply a cold abyss of heartache. You’re suddenly forced to soak in the desolate feeling that Mitski’s unable to escape; a pinpoint splurge of emotion that just about sums up what the record is trying to do as a whole.
The project incorporates subtle hints of the emotionally poignant rock grooves from Puberty 2 in cuts like “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” or “Geyser,” but is beefed up with horns and strings. It boasts a shimmering production quality with an irrefutable sense of vibrancy despite its pained subject matter. The songs deliver what’s necessary then end. It’s a display of mitski’s talent at breakneck pace, which makes it all the more inviting.
Furthermore, the album continues to distinguish heartwrenching moments of her history with failed relationships.“A Pearl” touches on the suffocating feeling of knowing you have to leave a harmful one, but romantic feelings still begging to show their head. “I’m sorry I don’t want your touch, it’s not that I don’t want you / it’s just that I fell in love with a war” she cries, over an instrumental clouded with impassioned guitar riffs that quickly erupt. “Remember My Name” is drenched in similar sorrow, though buried underneath layers of guitar grooves with tones ranging from thickly warped to lighthearted and inviting. Mitski calls out “I need somebody to remember my name after all I can do for them is done,” conveying the feeling of being trapped fulfilling others’ needs and therefore detached from her sense of self-worth. Everyone she involves herself with seems to come and go without remorse. Acknowledgement of this loneliness comes through on “Nobody,” a track with a passionate vocal delivery that breaks out into a captivating crescendo sprinkled with hints of alternative dance and new wave.
On the surface, Be The Cowboy seems like it has all the qualities I’m looking for; it shows artistic progression in its versatility, some intense crescendos, and a lineup of different genre influences. However, Mitski sometimes gets lost shoving in as many sonic ideas as possible and sacrifices the genuine sense of vulnerability and emotion that her last album had. The vocal performances feel noticeably hollow; she goes through the motions and smoothly hits the tough notes, but fails to translate much weight or passion. Its sophisticated arrangements might feel momentarily impressive and wrapped in things to discover on a surface level, but they breeze by pretty insignificantly when they aren’t backed by a thought-provoking theme.
Even moments of potential, like the sweet piano jive of “Me & My Husband,” the hypnotic piano chords on “A Horse Named Cold Air,” or the hauntingly nostalgic hook of “Old Friend” become lost in their refusal to expand on those ideas. Some instrumentals border on stale, like the acoustic chord progression used on “Lonesome Love,” or the lukewarm guitar/piano chords and reverb-drenched vocals of “Come Into The Water.” The album may be a display of raw emotion with a refined, dense display of instrumentation at its best, but at its worst? The riveting moments become buried in relentless leaps from one sound to the next. In her next effort, I’m eager to see Mitski trim the fat and spend more time fully developing whatever ideas she chooses to hone in on, but Be The Cowboy fails to escape a handful of suffocating problems.