“Be the Cowboy” is a major step forward for Mitski

The acclaimed indie-pop artist’s fifth album offers a surprising change in direction, resulting in her best work yet

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Mitski's music is full of contradictions, which is anything but a complaint. Far from it, her lyrics often feature incredibly specific, bizarre stories and intimate personal details, yet they’re delivered in a way that makes them universally relatable. Her songs rarely reach the three-minute mark, but each one leaves a lasting impact and fits more ideas in that short time than most artists could cover in an entire album.

What’s so immediately striking about her fifth album, “Be the Cowboy,” is how casually excellent it is. In another contradiction, each song is filled with the passion and honesty that endeared legions of fans to her in the first place, all while giving off an impression of complete effortlessness. “I need somebody to remember my name, after all that I can do for them is done,” she sings on the album. She proceeds to ensure her audience that no matter what comes next for the singer-songwriter, no one will ever forget it.

“Be the Cowboy” is closest thing to a pop album Mitski’s made to date after a few albums of more straightforward indie rock, but her songwriting remains as clever and nuanced as ever. “Nobody” is about as perfect as modern pop songs get, a disco-tinged piano ballad complete with multiple key changes, repeating its title so many times that the word itself sounds odd. Meanwhile, songs like “Washing Machine Heart” show a new, synth-pop side of the artist reminiscent of artists like St. Vincent and CHVRCHES.

But while parts of “Be the Cowboy” are more pop-oriented than any of her previous music, other songs are surprisingly subdued. Songs like “Come into the Water” and “A Horse Named Cold Air” are so subtle and restrained that, out of context of the album, they unfortunately tend to blur together. This isn’t always the case, however, as the album’s closer and its best song, “Two Slow Dancers,” consists of little more than a few chords on a keyboard, some strings, and Mitski’s voice, but because of this simplicity ends up being the most powerful moment on an album full of them.

“Be the Cowboy” may not be the pop breakthrough many fans were eagerly (or nervously) awaiting, but it certainly is Mitski’s most adventurous. It switches genres quickly and often, and is always engaging but never overwhelming. Ultimately, it stands on its own as Mitski’s most rewarding effort yet.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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