I first heard Mitski when she opened for Lorde at the Wells Fargo Center last April, but that’s not when I fell in love her. I remember thinking, as the Lorde cult member that I am, that if the composer of my young adult life chose this artist, she must be pretty good. So that’s what I thought as I waited for Mitski to come out two hours before the headliner. I heard the set, but didn’t think much of it. Unfortunately, between the noise of people crowding into the stadium, my excitement for Lorde herself, and my unfamiliarity with Mitski, I ended up going home and forgetting about her.
Until, that is, she released Be the Cowboy, and everyone around me and on my Twitter timeline threw it in my face. My first listen took place while driving to Penn a couple weeks ago, and that is when I fell in love. Mitski’s music requires attention—at least the first five or so times you listen to a song—and that’s exactly what I gave it on that car ride.
Mitski’s writing is emotional first and blunt second. These balance each other out. Although her songs are about her tragic love stories, she seems to relish them and is so upfront about how they make her feel. It’s as if, while we’re listening, we’re hearing her go through catharsis and become a stronger person. So, in spite of the vulnerability she shares—or maybe because of it—it’s hard not to think she’s killing it.
Take “Geyser,” my personal favorite from her latest album. It begins with a striking, funeral–organ minor chord and equally striking lyrics of desperation:
You're my number one
You're the one I want
And you've turned down
Every hand that has beckoned me to come
A sadness permeates the whole song, but a sense of resolve and empowerment joins it and builds up as the song progresses. The lines change from longing to realization, and a tonal shift to preppier drums and guitar matches that change on the melody, as if she begins as a distant, hopeless admirer and ends up with something much more real and close:
But I will be the one you need
The way I can't be without you
I will be the one you need
I just can't be without you
“Nobody” is a jazzier, upbeat track with lyrics about loneliness that sound like they should have the same funeral track that Geyser gave us. Its lyrics all point in the direction of pity, as she sings, “Give me one good honest kiss//and I’ll be alright,” before a chorus of “Nobody” repeated eight times. But she doesn’t want our pity, and she’s pretty clear about that:
And I don't want your pity
I just want somebody near me
Guess I'm a coward
I just want to feel alright
Mitski’s Be the Cowboy would be a sob story of an album if not for its creator’s resilience and bluntness in the face of sadness. It ends up making the listener more envious of her ability to deal with, accept, cope with, and move on from the tragedies we all face than pity her.
She ends the album with “Two Slow Dancers,” which rivals “Landslide” as the most tragic coming–of–age song about growing up. She sings,
It would be a hundred times easier
If we were young again
But as it is
And it is
Unlike other sad songs, this one faces the sadness. Mitski likes to drift into fantasy, pull herself back into reality, then move on. And that’s a good lesson for us all. She ends the song with something she does well throughout the album: a vivid, relatable scene undermined by tragedy:
To think that we could stay the same
But we're two slow dancers, last ones out
We're two slow dancers, last ones out
Two slow dancers, last ones out
We could all learn from Mitski’s ability to force her worries through a sieve, processing them into something that is somehow both depressive and joyous. Putting Be the Cowboy on repeat and crying uncontrollably is a good place to start.