What I’m Listening To: ‘Be the Cowboy’
I hummed to Mitski long before I knew who she was. Puberty 2 fit my experience better than most clothes did following my personal Puberty 1, but the album evaded my attention until I was nineteen. I would’ve been brilliantly exposed had I still watched Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time as a high school junior — what an introduction it would’ve been, watching none other than Marceline the Vampire Queen serenade me with “Francis Forever.” Yet, “Your Best American Girl” somehow didn’t approach me until two years later, laying on my dorm room bed, fixated on the ceiling two feet above me and on my fleeting teenhood’s boundless spell of unrequited love. How fitting the timing was, the music soundtracking an era just as awkward.
This wasn’t the case with Be the Cowboy. At the tail end of summer 2018, I felt my world rev up with potential as I sunk into a sense of comfort I hadn’t felt before, the fear and trepidation of not belonging slipping from my anxieties. I’d be a sophomore and an adjusted 20-year-old in a matter of time (or at least I convinced myself of the latter). I found my niche on campus and my passion. And Be the Cowboy explored love the way neither Mitski nor I had ever before. It’s personal but distant, builds over itself in manifold ways but slips away like a gasp. It coats over our existence in a seamless ether we reduce to experiences. And Be the Cowboy explores this in gestures both grand and minute.
This is felt from the introduction, with “Geyser” buzzing like a subdued cathedral organ. This continues into the first verse, scattered with twinkling piano keys that hum as Mitski croons “You’re my number one / You’re the one I want / And I’ve turned down / Every hand that has beckoned me to come.” She sings in abstracts, reducing love to an essence that simmers in the chorus as she proclaims “Though I’m a geyser / Feel it bubbling from below.” It aches and crescendos in an undeniable desire to an undisclosed love, one only conveyed by Mitski in interviews. “I will be whatever it needs me to be. I will do whatever it needs me to do in order for me to continue to be able to make music,” Mitski revealed in an interview with NPR. But that’s not obvious, it’s not even subtly present within the album.
This is the magic of Be the Cowboy, where every subject is navigated through raw emotion and feeling. The lyrics are jumbled up in heady metaphors and abstractions that play over sheer, meticulous instruments that sparkle, crescendo and buzz at the very tinge of emotional intensity. It’s this vague potency that makes the songs applicable to any situation yet direct enough to pinpoint specific, unique ones for every individual.
I tune in to this album frequently, but especially when I lose track of my motivation. For me at least, passion and a willingness to explore are reflections of what we love and how we uncover them. Be the Cowboy evokes these feelings in unwavering confidence and insight. It blurs out universal experiences under a wistful, omniscient lens that envelop feelings from a particular place of significance. “Pink in the Night” renders unrequited love as a person staring at someone else’s back, unraveling into the turmoil of longing for a past relationship one of the other parties has already moved on from. “Two Slow Dancers,” on the other hand, finds two lovers intertwined, revisiting the scent of a school gymnasium and their fleeting youth under the guide of elegant, plinking synths. There’s an insecurity to these feelings most artists fail to capture in their work, and rightfully so — it’s easy to come off as self-loathing and pathetic. However, it never feels this way with Mitski. Her loneliness, the companion to her overarching subject of love, pleads for company and latches onto interests that have long evaded Mitski’s life. But they never run trite, nor strive for sympathy. Rather, these songs connect with people to foster a sense of companionship, reassuring listeners of whatever plight they may experience.
At 20, I can confidently say I’m no longer enraptured by the insecurities that defined my adolescence; my body feels comfortable to me and I no longer chase after interests that don’t “beckon me” the way music does for Mitski. Rather, I find my entanglements in the way I connect with what I love and what it means to me. I experience burnout often when I write, find it hard to strike up a conversation with the people I love on occasion or lose track of why I’m going into teaching. These predicaments cast the spell of loneliness I now know in these early moments of adulthood; it’s easy to allow them to cast you off as other or incapable of achieving what you desire. This is the thread that weaves Be the Cowboy as it dog-ears landmark experiences and feelings like moments in a worn-out novel. Every statement, feeling and confession pours out seamlessly but under the guise of a sonic precision throughout this labyrinthine narrative of love.
This is why Mitski’s Be the Cowboy succeeds; it encapsulates Mitski’s relationship with music in not only its progression from her previous effort but the capacity to communicate the tribulations Mitski endured to produce it. She highlights this in the absurdity of diffidence and the fruitless clinging to the past, how they fester into unsatisfactory stagnation. This album assures me of the transience of my problems, the capacity to love and survive in the never-ending desire to pursue the things I love.