Mitski doesn’t need much time to devastate you.
On “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars,” the burning heart of her 2016 breakthrough album “Puberty 2,” it takes her exactly one minute and 56 seconds to break down her entire psyche into a mass of anxieties, from not knowing how to make rent to wanting to be killed in Jerusalem, dragging you headfirst with her. On that album’s last track, “A Burning Hill,” she completes the return half of that journey in six seconds fewer, painting a picture of resignation and emptiness that settles, beautiful and broken, into a sort of peace with the world. The two tracks are as different as any of the album — one embodying a frantic, punk-ish panic about your uncertain place in the world, the other a final, quiet acceptance of one’s fate — but what they share is how spare they are, how little they need to pull you in entirely. The songs on her follow-up to “Puberty 2,” August’s “Be The Cowboy,” follow suit.
Of the 14 tracks on “Be The Cowboy,” the Japanese American singer-songwriter’s second album on the independent label Dead Oceans, only two are longer than three minutes, and a full 11 fall between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half. Yet none of them feel too short; on “Be The Cowboy,” Mitski cements her case as one of the great short story writers of our time, a master of the art of conservation of detail.
It helps, of course, that Mitski is able to convey entire songs’ worth of meaning in those tiniest details. On “Be The Cowboy,” she can do it in a line — “Lonesome Love” starts off with “I call you, to see you again/So I can win, and this can finally end,” which might not even be the most evocative line of the album (but is certainly the funniest.) She can do it in a word — anytime she says “kiss” or “touch” on “Be The Cowboy” she imbues them with a deep and metaphysical longing, one that can change the energy of an entire song to something more potent. She can even do it without saying a single word — the sigh that leads off “Me And My Husband” is almost worth as much as the rest of the song combined.
Mitski has always been a master artisan of those little moments — just take a listen to her two self-released albums that she put out during her time at Purchase College’s music school for evidence of her early talent — but “Be The Cowboy” recasts them in a different light. On her first few albums — “Puberty 2” and 2014 breakthrough “Bury Me At Makeout Creek” especially — Mitski’s detail and lyrical skill was often framed by raw, punk-like backings. Mitski was on those albums a woman in the middle of a hostile wilderness, only partly in control of what was going on around her. On “Puberty 2” especially, she sounds desperate and in crisis. Songs like “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars” feel like watching a friend go through an emotional breakdown in your dorm room. It’s hard to look away but almost too intense to look at in the first place. And so on the strength of those albums, in all of their heart-wrenching emotional detail and rawness, Mitski became known as a diarist, a writer of songs as confessions or personal therapy sessions. On Pitchfork’s (otherwise excellent) review of “Puberty 2,” Jillian Maples refers to the album as a “detailed chronicling of the day-to-day interior struggle” and a “resounding personal statement” in the first two paragraphs alone. Other publications beat a similar drum, and by the time “Be The Cowboy” and its press tour came around, Mitski’s reputation was firmly entrenched as “Indie Rock’s Foremost Sad Girl™.”
“Be The Cowboy” is at its core a reaction to this reputation, a demonstration that Mitski’s skill as a crafter of detail is clear and unimpeachable, no matter what she’s writing about. The Mitski of “Be The Cowboy” isn’t singing about herself (and maybe she never was). Her skill is not one of diary but of empathy, of seeing through the eyes of her subjects and vividly rendering their pains and joys. And so the songs on “Be The Cowboy” do two things to make this clear. In their aesthetics, they move beyond the raw guitar rock of Mitski’s prior two albums. And in the stories they tell, they broaden the world of Mitski’s artistic vision; her songs are no longer just sung from the point of view of the sad and anxious young people that she once embodied but also figures more far out, from the lonesome cowboy of “A Horse Named Cold Air” or the reminiscing old lovers of gorgeous album closer “Two Slow Dancers.” The themes are the same — love, loss, the liminal territory between them — but what could be once written off by critics or even admirers as personal and diaristic is rendered now as universal.
It’s a bold expansion of Mitski’s lyrical skill, one backed up by a corresponding evolution in her sound. It isn’t quite accurate to say that “Be The Cowboy” abandons the distorted, grunge-influenced guitar rock of “Puberty 2” — if you want distortion, just listen to the opening organ note of “Geyser” as it gets chopped up and twisted as Mitski sings her first lines there, or the fireworks on the hook of “A Pearl” as it transitions into a roaring guitar break and some arena rock drum fills. Instead, “Be The Cowboy” envelops the sounds that Mitski has used in the past — the heavy guitars and booming drums of “Puberty 2” and “Bury Me At Makeout Creek,” but also the orchestral arrangements and art-rock passages of her two self-released albums — using them, but also exploring new aesthetics, from the disco-by-the-way-of-“Lovefool” of “Nobody” to the uncanny valley country of “Lonesome Love.”
It’s a stylistic shift similar to the full leap onto the dancefloor that was St. Vincent’s “MASSEDUCTION,” but where that record used disco aesthetics to show that Annie Clark was opening up and singing more personally compared to the erudite but sometimes distant avant-garde material of her earlier work, “Be The Cowboy” uses dance music to do the opposite. The Nile Rodgers-esque guitar and disco drumbeat of “Nobody” lends the whole song a feeling of unreality — imagine the pre-chorus of “And I don’t want your pity/I just want somebody near me/Guess I’m a coward/I just want to feel alright” over gritted teeth and distorted guitars, and it becomes far more maudlin and dark. On the record, though, Mitski plays it with a wink that hides the tears — it’s ridiculous, but so is human tragedy in general. But to just say that the Mitski of “Be The Cowboy” has lightened up does her (and all her prior forms) a disservice — there was always humor in her music, it’s just heightened here, along with the rest of the emotions.
It’s that heightened atmosphere that lets Mitski slip into so many different stories on “Be The Cowboy.” The promotional artwork that accompanied “Geyser,” “Nobody” and “Two Slow Dancers” featured her as women that she clearly was not — old-timey film stars or high-class society women on the run. The video for “Nobody” even breaks away in its last beats, showing that Mitski herself was an actress on a set. And the songs on “Be The Cowboy” live up to that promise not just in their settings but also in the perspectives she sings from. Everyone’s sad and lost and nostalgic for some old love, but the ways in which Mitski’s protagonists react to their predicaments range wildly, from the closed-off, obsessed veteran-of-sorts of “A Pearl” to the almost-vampiric rock star of “Remember My Name.” And in rendering all of these disparate hearts in such loving detail, Mitski does what all the great short storytellers must do: telling the same story many times in different guises and drawing something new from it every time.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.