Nobody's Valentine: A Mitski Introspective
Finally Understanding Be The Cowboy 5 Years Later
Nearly five years following its release, I found myself revisiting singer-songwriter and industry ‘outcast’ Mitski’s landmark record, Be the Cowboy. My first-ever contact with this album was prompted by high expectations from the outset, with its critical acclaim to ‘genre-defiance’. This time, things were different: I stumbled upon “Nobody” in a liked songs shuffle, taking me on an unexpected deep dive despite my forgone conclusions that Be the Cowboy just wasn’t for me.
Coming back to the album was like a cold shower first thing in the morning–– I felt slightly attacked, but things finally made sense. If that wasn’t for me being half a decade older than the last time I heard it, then it was surely for being surrounded by all the consumerist junk of the Valentine’s holiday. Mitski’s lyrics took shape for me during those two glorious weeks, where we get to live in an advertisement that pushes one corporate idea of love, leaving in its wake a cesspool of discontent, and an uncharacteristic motivation to align your life with a Hallmark movie. Then, Valentine’s day finally comes around and its not-so-subtle messaging is second only to my aunt at holiday parties - have you found ‘anyone special’ yet? At that point, I had resigned to the idea that the only thing more overdone than ‘love’ itself was the concept of a lovesong. Yet, in this feeling of indifference to the constant insincerity of ‘love’, the brilliance of Be the Cowboy was never clearer.
Mitski isn’t here to bullshit us. She’s here to tell us the whole undeniable truth, no matter how unflattering it is. While for her fans, her ‘outcast’ status is what brings her all the closer to our hearts, it ironically can also be credited for launching her album into the mainstream. As a singer in the pop-sphere, she brings a typically ‘unmarketable’ vulnerability that has been long lost to teams of commercial advisors behind well-established artists. Both the critics and the masses were swayed by her willingness to err on the border of downright desperation. The result? A radically vulnerable, yet simple musical product owing to nothing but the action of transparency in lyrics, sound and structure.
Mitski’s lyrical agility on Be the Cowboy is one of the strongest proponents of her simple vulnerability. She treats words as a limited resource–– used sparingly, and with deep intention to heighten emotional potency. While her stories tend to be open-ended, the message remains crystal clear. There is no better example of this than the determined narrative on “Geyser,” which she describes in an interview with NPR as much less romantic than listeners interpret it to be: “I wrote it about music or just maybe a music career.” In this way, each track on the album feels like a lake we peer into and see our hearts reflected. From the unabashed desperation on “Old Friend” (“I’ll take anything you wanna give me”) to “Nobody”, the unofficial anthem for loneliness and longing. But it isn’t all insufferable begging. She is reasonable and rational: she doesn’t “want your pity” and knows “no one will save” her, effectively grounding her world-stopping emotions in a self-aware reality. Her feeble disposition continues on “Blue Light”, a de facto reprise to “Nobody” as she continues her misery without a hint of self-indulgence or melodrama in her voice “somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy.”
Mitski is transparent because she allows things to be ambiguous, unresolved, and messy. She presents several narratives with the knowledge that two feelings can exist at once. On “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” –– both knowing why a relationship ended and still seeing it through rose-coloured glasses. On “A Pearl” –– there is a craving for an unstable relationship long gone, a guilty desire that persists even within the loving security of her current relationship. Perhaps “Washing Machine Heart” is the most heartbreaking of these two-toned narratives. The track considers a beautiful metaphor of dirty shoes being ‘tossed’ (to add to the lack of care) into a washing machine, translating to the desperation of wanting to connect with a person even though they treat her heart with such reckless abandon. She came prepared to be hurt, “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick / I thought maybe we would kiss tonight”, but still shows up for them with the hope that one day she might be wanted. Then, paint a more striking image of yearning than “Pink in the Night” : “I hear my heart breaking tonight / do you hear it too?/ it’s like a summer shower / with every drop of rain singing / I love you, I love you, I love you”. Only Mitski would frame unrequited love as the ability to stare at someone’s back all day. Be the Cowboy encompasses imagery seeped in pining and emotional isolation, with vocals juxtaposing bright yet plaintive, acting as the perfect salve to both the intensity and the range of emotion felt through this album.
Though her lyrics can stand alone with immense gravity, they simply cannot be read as poetry. The instrumental accompaniment that ebbs below her vocal lines counterbalances the seductive flatness of her voice with tides of tension and release. While pop-leaning genres tend to weave lyrics precisely into the song’s underlying pulse and chord changes, Mitski subverts our expectations of the vocal/instrumental relationship. Be the Cowboy feels as though the melodic lines come first, and the music comes after. She seldom rhymes, and emphasizes words not according to the regular rhythm of speech, but to the meaning and mood of the song.
The accompaniment itself is by no means lackluster. By the time of most pop artists’ fifth album, if they are so lucky to arrive at one, they lose the audiences that came to them for their original sound. Fortunately, Be the Cowboy succeeds for its musical texture which feels much more transparent than some of her past works. Mitski does not hide behind the superficial–– she brings concepts of heartbreak from our emotional world to the tangible with as little embellishment as possible. At their core, many of these songs are piano or guitar ballads, with a fixed number of instrumental layers— most ‘acoustic’ of them being “A Horse Named Cold Air,” “Two Slow Dancers,” and “Old Friend.” Even still, it does not come across as a stripped-back album. Textures are eclectic, they vary from clean with few layers, to lush and dense soundscapes, more often than not, within the same song. This happens on “Lonesome Love”: as the narrative describes the self-respect leaving her body from a mere ‘hello’, the tune modulates key, and the sound seems to melt away alongside her resolve.
The tone palette follows the same principle as the lyrics: relatively simple but used resourcefully. The standout, her keyboard synthesizer, makes some of the most captivating moments, from the organ sound on “Come into the Water,” to the synthesized brass on “Me and My Husband” and “Remember My Name,” or her sly contribution to the 80s renaissance with riffs on “Old Friend”, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” and “Washing Machine Heart”. Cymbals are another important expression on this album, declaring their arrival with the sweeping opener “Geyser”, driving the buildup on “Nobody,” then later returning on “Pink In the Night” and “Remember My Name.” Even when the layers of synths and percussion become dense at emotional heights, they always feel well-earned. Some of the rarer moments bring back the electric guitar of Puberty 2, with gritty solos on “A Pearl,” “Remember My Name,” and “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
The transparent quality of her sound is even further carried into the structure of this album. Songs are short, repetitive, and spacious, with plenty of instrumental interludes which allow the lyrics to resonate. The result is a set of tunes that are well-paced, each one fresh yet cohesive with the other. One of the hallmarks of this album is the song forms, as the schedule of tension to release is linear, contradicting the usual cyclical pop structure of verse and refrain. “Geyser” is a perfect example of this ‘power ballad’ format, beginning with a moment of disillusion and dissonance, after which the smoke clears to reveal her breakthrough “you’re the one I got”. As the song progresses to its finale, including crashing cymbals and triumphant, synthesized brass, it only becomes brighter and more sure of itself. This mono-directional form is also adopted in “Nobody,” “Blue Light,” and “Pink in the Night”–– each merely meditating in a feeling. They are significant for their ability to capture not a story or contemplation, but a moment in time where you feel so sure about a decision, a person, a passion, that it feels things could never go in a different direction: the ‘this is as good as it gets’ or even ‘this is as bad as it gets’.
Through her use of expansive and anthemic chord progressions combined with lyrics on wishing and wanting, Mitski represents an emotional descent through a reciprocal musical ascent. She wears her desperation like a badge, declares it rather than hides it. Be the Cowboy pulls the curtains back on what it means to unravel in a way that is unbecoming yet unapologetic, through and through.