FEATURE: Breakthrough Album of 2018: Mitski – Be the Cowboy




Breakthrough Album of 2018

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

Mitski – Be the Cowboy


ALTHOUGH the votes have been cast for this year’s...



best albums; there are those that deserve special attention and focus. My favourite album of 2018 is IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance - and I am not going to back down on that. It is filled with so much life, energy and wonderful moments. It is an important album that seems to document a particular feeling that is happening in music – big issues need discussing and music needs to start addressing taboo subjects. IDLES’ sophomore album has managed to tackle big topics and some meaty subjects but done so in a very intelligent and balanced way. You are never overwhelmed or bogged down by anger; the music is never light and too ineffectual. Many critics share the viewpoint: Joy as an Act of Resistance has been lauded and topped many of this year’s ‘best of’ lists. I have looked at the underrated albums of this year and those that disappointed. There is one artist who has been getting exceptional reviews this year but not talked about as widely as some of the big names. Mitski is an artist I have been aware of and when her fifth studio album, Be the Cowboy, was released in August; I knew it would be a great one. Every one of her albums has been an amazing revelation and turned heads but I think Be the Cowboy is the declaration (that she) is as potent and fantastic as any artist in the world right now.

Her previous album, Puberty 2 – not a film I ever want to see! –gained huge reviews and many noticed the evolution. Mitski had stepped to a new level and, whilst talking of racial identity and personal struggle, she had managed to make an album that was both personal to her but could be understood by everyone. The musicianship and skill throughout the album is immense and that momentum has carried through to Be the Cowboy. 2016’s Puberty 2 was considered one of the year’s best and, rightly, Be the Cowboy is making the same lists this year. It, to me, is the biggest breakthrough album as it takes an already exceptional artist on a roll and sees her hit a peak. This latest album is the sound of Mitski combining all her previous sounds and ideas into one explosive, varied and staggering album. Produced by longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland; Be the Cowboy sees Mitski widen her musical horizons and bring more to the mix. We get horns, synthesizers and other elements alongside her signature sound from the guitar. Mitski stated, whilst promoting the album and announcing it, that she was inspired by a vision of a singer (maybe herself) alone on stage; spotlight trained right at them in an otherwise dark room. If her previous couple of albums were recorded whilst busy and not completely focused – maybe less personal and expressive as she’d hoped-; Be the Cowboy is a return to the true sound of Mitski.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Savanna Ruedy

Her fifth studio album is her most striking and instant because of its new horizons and the fact it sounds completely free. Many artists who achieve a run of great albums make mistakes and push their music too far in the wrong direction. Instead of keeping the body of the vehicle the same and tuning the engine; they completely re-spray it and make unwelcomed modifications. Mitski knows how strong her music is but has spent time tuning, fettling and making sure everything purrs. I shall drop the car analogy but Mitski did not need to start from scratch or make any radical alterations. What Be the Cowboy does is continue where Puberty 2 left off and adds in some fresh elements. The fact so many more outlets and critics are raving about this record – compared to some of her others – means she has hit her peak...that is not to say she has peaked for good. I feel future albums will, yet again, add new aspects to the pot and see her evolve. If the music on Be a Cowboy sounds confident and completely assured; the same cannot be said of its author. In interviews; Mitski has questioned her success and how long people will like her. When speaking with The Guardian earlier this year, she discussed her fear of things changing:

When you’re happy for too long,” she explains, sitting in her label’s east London office, “you’re kind of waiting for something bad to happen. People decided they wanted to hate Anne Hathaway after she was so popular. For no reason. That’s a cycle that repeats itself everywhere.” As a pre-emptive strike, she decided to treat her new album, Be the Cowboy, which has received rapturous reviews from critics, as an act of self-sabotage. Whenever she veered too close to the sound that gained her praise in the past, she stuck a foot out and tripped herself up. “I fucked with the form, almost in ways that make me uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s almost like: ‘Well, before this goes to shit and you stop liking me, I’m going to do something that I know you won’t like, so that I’m the one who’s rejecting you’”...

Many people, young women in particular, will relate to this. Despite her self-defensive inclination towards burning bridges, Mitski’s ability and desire to write songs that people connect with has won out. “Everyone has a different reason for making music, mine is I want to feel connected to other people,” she says. She is Japanese American, and has spoken of feeling out of place in both cultures. “I’ve always grown up feeling lonely or other, but through my music, I can be like: ‘Look, we’re the same, we’ve felt the same thing, so we’re not so different. I belong here.’ It’s almost like a hungry monster that’s just a constant need to feel connection”.

Having red interviews around the album’s release; I started to get an insight into Mitski and the themes that compelled Be the Cowboy. She comes across as a very modest but complicated artist who is as keen to reflect fears and insecurities we all face – as opposed concentrating too much on the self and personal relationship struggles. When speaking with FADER; she was asked about themes of fame and loneliness:

One of the album’s themes seems to be this idea that even with fame, there's still a lingering fear that it's not enough — that we need something more.

I'm less talking about fame in the crude sense, and more [about how] I'm someone who goes on stage and becomes a symbol. People project onto me. Internally, [I’m trying] to understand that dynamic. I think that's something that everyone thinks about. Even in day-to-day conversation, we're projecting onto each other. And [there's] a weird dissatisfaction either way: you want people to project onto you and see you as something bigger than you are, but when people actually do that, it's not what you want. You want people to know you for who you are, but when they actually know you for who you are, you're like, "No, I want you to think I'm great."

Another big theme seems to be loneliness. How does that relate to the other stuff we’ve been talking about?

There's the loneliness of being a symbol and a projection, but I think that loneliness [says a lot about] being a woman, or being an other — some kind of identity that has a lot of symbols attached to it. And there's also just touring. Touring is a very ... it isolates. The longer musicians tour, the more isolated they become from the rest of society, because the way you live is so incredibly different. And no one can really relate to your experiences, so you can't talk to anybody about it and you go deeper and deeper inside


Listening to Mitski speaking about her music and reading interviews gives you a window into this very special artist. There is this disarming modesty and sense that things will all go wrong. Maybe she feels acclaim will wane and the fame will start to fade. Judging by the universal acclaim Be the Cowboy has accursed; there is this hunger for music from her. We have these artists who consistently produce wonderful albums and it takes a very long time for cracks to appear – Mitski is one of those artists. Consequence of Sound gave their views regarding her fifth studio album:

 “She adds depth with crashing brush strokes of electric guitar, but a bouncing synth riff, like a slinky on a staircase, adds a knowing grin to the musings. Similarly, while admitting a willingness to let love do its worst, she initiates a pulsing, clanging beat over which she offers the playfully doomed and seductive invitation to “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart/ Baby bang it up inside.”

On a songwriting level, Mitski — already established as a top-tier songwriter — has outdone herself on Be the Cowboy. The album is full of constructions that are simple, bold, sharp, and generous. She wastes not a single second, every moment is intentional, every instrument employed for a purpose”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The Guardian gave their thoughts and impressions:

 “Be the Cowboy is 14 songs long, only three of which exceed two-and-a-half minutes. This odd but effective structure lets Mitski investigate new styles, commit just long enough for them to stick, then quit before anything becomes a genre exercise. She trades most of the rock heft of her 2016 album Puberty 2 for exhilaratingly manic disco (Nobody), girl-group hypnosis (Come Into the Water) and gothic surrealism (A Horse Named Cold Air) among some straighter, strummier numbers.

Mitski’s songwriting trademarks are strong enough to transcend the stylistic revamp – arrangements that are rich without being precious (Pink in the Night), plus her terrifically mordant worldview. “Nobody butters me up like you,” she sings on twisted country song Lonesome Love. “And nobody fucks me like me.” It is hard to sing at a remove and maintain emotional directness – Mitski is famously private – but like St Vincent or even David Lynch, she specialises in the bait-and-switch of delight and obfuscation”.

There have been albums I have loved more this year but, in my view, there have been none as revelatory, transformative and evolved. By that, I mean no other artist has taken a bigger step and released an album that burns quite as bright. Be the Cowboy has these bold, fulsome and colourful arrangements but the subject matter is not sacrificed. One needs to listen to the album in full and make their own mind up but I have been blown away. Who knows what Mitski’s sixth album will contain and how far she can truly go. Given what we have discovered on Be the Cowboy, I feel the Japanese-American musician can ride, reign and gallop...

FOR many years to come.