‘There’s a sort of desperation in my music’, singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki joked recently to National Public Radio’s Bob Boilen about her single, ‘Geyser’ (2018). The song, accompanied by a video of the singer falling and digging in the rocky sands of a beach in the rain, seems in line, sonically and lyrically, with her previous odes to longing and belonging. Then, earlier this summer, Mitski released her single ‘Nobody’ – a semi-disco, semi-city pop, tragic-celebratory dance number – and fans began to wonder if a tonal shift was in store for her upcoming fifth album, Be the Cowboy, to be released on 17 August. Was everyone’s favourite tear-jerker going ‘pop’? But ‘Nobody’, produced by Mitski’s long-time collaborator Patrick Hyland, wasn’t free of the singer’s hallmark heart-breaking lyricism; rather, its careful layering of synths, keyboards and horns built upon what makes her so magnetic, and what has ultimately kept her mysterious, after four albums of confessional lullabies.
In her 2015 appearance on NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk’ programme, Mitski earnestly challenged the contemporary relationship between performer and product, musician and music. ‘Tiny Desk’, presents our favourite musicians without production or editing – the music here serves to bolster the musicians’ personal brand and the videos’ marketability rests in their promise to bring us ever-closer to the objects of our para-social desires. In the video, Mitski stands awkwardly behind the titular desk as though by a school dance punchbowl; her face is mostly slack as she cracks her way through her lyrics, occasionally knotting her brow; her oily skin and earth-toned comfort wear suggest a very different kind of rock star nonchalance. As she performs ‘Class of 2013’ (2013), she looks at the floor, brings the guitar up towards her mouth, and – vibrating the strings with the force of her voice – screams: ‘Mom, would you wash my back? / This once, and then we can forget / And I’ll leave what I’m chasing / For the other girls to pursue.’ Despite its aggressive execution, the song still feels incredibly tender. Three years on from her Tiny Desk performance and the concurrent tour of her breakout album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski has garnered a healthy fan-base from this undefinable combination of enigma and confession, question and answer.
In an era when the biggest pop stars release music to further cultivate their personal brand, Mitski refuses to let anything but her music speak for her. She keeps her private life a secret and is often brief when describing her lyrical choices. There’s an exhilarating, almost terrifying honesty in her music, and ‘Nobody’ manages to capture that heartbreak and rejection beneath its upbeat tempo and catchy chorus. The songs on Be the Cowboy chronicle a strained long-term relationship, forgotten friendships and bouts of solitude. When the album rests its 1980s pop synth or disco tempo, lilting piano or guitar riffs carry the slower songs (‘Blue Light’, ‘A Horse Named Cold Air’, ‘Come Into the Water’) like lullabies that echo in a valley.
According to historians such as William Loren Katz, the ‘Old West’ of the US was rife with racial and sexual politics: one in four cowboys were black and a number were Native American. Sex work enabled women to gain financial and subsequently political power, establishing entire towns and schools with their own economy. Still, the silver-screen legacy of the West has seared its own mythology into the popular imagination, leaving a fiddly mirage of fantasy and fact.
At first glance, Be the Cowboy’s title seems to play off one of Mitski’s bigger hits, ‘Your Best American Girl’, a defiant declaration of her non-conventional national and racial identity. In fact, she came up with the charge in college, after a confident classmate and cowboy impersonator took the stage at a school event. Be the Cowboy isn’t a demand for manifest destiny, it’s a mantra to project that kind of male bravado. Still, named by a singer who grew up moving from country to country, the title also echoes the comfortable, nomadic loneliness of an American icon. It also reflects a new paradigm for the music industry: when previously the tour promoted album sales, now the album promotes the tour. If living as a musician implies a life of relentless travel, Mitskioffers the cowboy figure as a model for survival.
A connection between space and bodily sensation unites these tracks, which drift between haunting lamentation and celebration. Mitski sings of a diner, a school gymnasium, and ‘a lake with no fish,’ places that serve as emotional signposts for states of isolation or connection. ‘Why am I lonely?’ she asks at the end of ‘Lonesome Love’, the song’s title a letter shy of the infamous 1985 cowboy saga, Lonesome Dove. In ‘Remember My Name’, she seems to come close to an answer: ‘I need something bigger than the sky / Hold it in my arms and know it’s mine.’ With Be the Cowboy, Mitski’s imagination glides through the plains, extending the landscape of her longing so that we hear not a single definable voice, but a chorus as vast and varied as the US West. Much like the lonesome poster boys of masculinity she invokes, Mitski herself remains ambiguous, cold but confessional; and with every closer step we take, seems to blur a little bit more out of focus.
Mitski. Courtesy: NPR Music; photograph: Bar Ngo