Be the Cowboy by Mitski 🤠 Song by Song Analysis


Written by Tia

I love Mitski—this is no secret. I've loved her previous albums and I'm sure I'll love this one, too. But I haven't listened to her latest album Be the Cowboy yet, so I'll be reacting to each of the songs individually (in order) and offering my initial analyses of the lyrics, sound, and overall quality.

Because that's what review blogs do 😉!

I want this to be a place where people who don't know Mitski can give her music a try, starting with songs they think they'll like best, but also offer some of my more complex thoughts on her music for those who are familiar with it and would like to discuss it more in the comments.

Everyone's thoughts are welcome! Now let's get into it.

1. Geyser

OK, I lied. I know this one. But whatever—I'm not an animal! It was released as a single a while back with a music video, so you can bet your ass I jumped on that hype train as fast as anyone. What can I say? I know that Mitski delivers.

At first I was put off by the sound at the beginning, mostly because it made it hard to watch the music video without jumping every time it restarted it. But Mitski has never made her music easily consumable. It's not pop music (let's say, for comparison's sake: the hotdog of music), but more like music made by someone who likes pop music, but also likes rock, and poetry, and going to the MoMA. A turduken of sound, so to speak.

But anyway, let's not get carried away too early.

"Geyser" is the first song on the album and first song released. It's an explosive start to what clearly will be an album with a new sound. Mitski's previous work revolved around guitar and voice with layers of effects from a variety of more-or-less secondary (tertiary, I suppose) instruments.

I think "Geyser" does a better job equalizing the turduken of instrumental sound around Mitski's voice. Her clean and clear vocals shine through a blend of cinematic sound, and her lyrics welcome her listeners into a bleak, but optimistic world, where you get the sense she could run, and run, and run, and never tire, as hard as it is.

Speaking of running, this would make a great song for working out. It riles you up and gets you hyped for the rest of the album to come, like starting an expensive engine and hearing how smooth its rumbling growl is. In conclusion: A crowdpleaser.

2. Why Didn't You Stop Me?

This is the first song on the album so far that I haven't heard before.

It runs along a steady, fun beat, and her voice comes in almost cacophonously, but rights itself just as you think the ship is about to turn over on its side. The instrumental comes in to sweep her voice up in electronic sound, and isn't afraid to rock out, leaving her with just a few lyrics on the board.

Something about the sound makes me think that if the Beatles (yep, I'm going there and I'm taking names and buying property) had released an album in 2018 (and were alive and still together, obviously) the instrumental would sound... something like this.

But Mitski's vocals play with the sound and push the instrumental to strange corners and notes that give it a little more edge. It sounds like the visual depiction of a band dressed in white, playing against a white background, while she runs around dumping oil-spill colored paint on them until they become distorted figures.

And I love it.

The lyrics are playful and, honestly, a little sad. Which is, given, the woman's M.O. At least on previous albums, Mitski has always pursued, lyrically, the painful personal stories that people aren't always honest about, and then is starkly honest about them.

"Why Didn't You Stop Me?" traces a breakup that she initiated, and a realization that the person (or thing, as she says a lot of her songs are written with the "you" meaning "music") not chasing after her despite knowing her well enough to see the mistake she was making.

In some ways, the lyrics suggest the song might be about being self-destructive (or implosive), and the effects of that after a particularly erroneous decision. Or maybe, it's about the fun, playful chaos of life. And wanting old things back. And wanting to press undo. But recognizing that maybe you didn't know that person as well as you thought—or more honestly, yet, that you realize other people have their own reasons for making decisions and are not as predictable or in-tune to your own personal story as you'd like them to be.

Or maybe she's just making fun of people who want to be chased, while also recognizing that sometimes, well, you just want to be chased.

3. Old Friend

There's really something about this Blue Diner, huh?

In "Old Friend," Mitski softens her sound a little to croon (hate this word, but using it because it feels right for the moment) out a little mournful tune for a former lover. Both have moved on, them to their "pretty friend" and her to "someone who loves me now, better than you."

But sometimes she just wants to grab coffee with them. She remembers them when she drives through their town. And no one even knows, because they apparently agreed not to let anyone know they were once together (and it almost "drowned" them).

Love doesn't just go away; it changes. And you might mourn the familiarity you once had with someone, even if they're no longer in your life anymore for reasons that might make it hard for them to ever safely reenter it again.

This is one of the more story-telling songs thus far, but it definitely falls at times into the same repetition Mitski uses when trying to emphasize a point and emphasize the different emotions behind a single line. AKA she mentions Blue Diner about 15 times. But it's not pointless repetition, nor dull repetition—it's circular; it mimics the circles in which the person writing the lyrics feels they're going.

4. A Pearl

I'll be honest. Listening to this song I felt both like "okay" and "wait, what is this about?" Fortunately, Mitski has already answered that question:

In Fader magazine, Mitski said, "For me, it was actually about when you have some kind of toxic relationship to yourself, or to another person, for so long that it becomes your identity. Even when you don’t need it anymore and you’ve stepped away from it, you still hold on to it because it’s scary to let it go—because if you actually let it go, it feels like erasing yourself. That song is about likening that sort of toxicity to a pearl. Even though you’re in this great relationship with somebody who loves you and wants to take care of you, you still don’t talk to them about what’s toxic in you. You just roll around this pearl in your hand every night and just look at it, like it’s a pretty thing."

The sound of "A Pearl" is a little more traditional than some of the other songs on the album. It's a little rock and roll, a little indie, a little bit full of quiet. It has the creeping-note quality of many Mitski songs (slightly minor—no, major? No... Minor?), with a little brass and a full band.

Its charm seems to rely most on its meaning and lyrics (the instrumental is good but not mind blowing either). "I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended" is a sentiment that many people might be familiar with, especially if they're dealing with a mental illness like depression. The feeling that there's something churning inside of you, something you've grown comfortable with despite its damaging effects, but something that you should be working to move away from. The sentiment that there is comfort in familiar pains.

5. Lonesome Love

"Lonesome Love" is this album's country song! Be the cowboy, indeed.

OK, that's only sort of a joke. The song appears to draw some influence from the vocal swoops and swinging guitar strumming style of country music, but without losing the Mitski or Be the Cowboy musical vibe.

Mitski's vocals are particularly sweet on this song—cheerful almost, despite the mournful lyrics. You can almost imagine her on stage at the end of a Twin Peaks: The Return episode, singing this to a faceless audience.

The lyrics are short and trace the story of a person meeting up with someone who still has (or has recently earned) a piece of their heart despite not having that much returned interest in them. Yikes. We've all been there though, right?

There's a little embarrassment and self-blame ("'Cause nobody butters me up like you, and / Nobody fucks me like me... Why am I lonely for lonesome love? / Why am I lonely?").

Loneliness is in some ways the theme of the album, but the cheerful sound of each song juxtaposes it nicely, bringing about the idea that perhaps loneliness is not so bad, or is something we can survive (if it is that bad).

Now, before I skip off to the next song, I do want to add that this is a really fun one to sing along to.

6. Remember My Name

This song has a very different intro than some of the others. It's way more rock and roll, and there's a nice build up to the chorus.

This one very clearly isn't about a person: it's about art, it's about living, it's about eternity.

Sound pretty epic? Well, it's not. It's sweet and simple. It's about wanting, and some very deep and painful human desires.

With this song especially, the album is slowly shedding away its romantic disguise, and revealing itself to be about something much bigger than the bond between people: the bond between man and the universe, and some biting desire for immortality and a full life.

It's a song to drive across the country to, the kind you dance to by spinning around and around and around. It's not wowing me yet, but I have a good feeling that it'll grow on me with time. And the sentiment in the lyrics is one that is surely relatable to everyone who's ever had a dream, despite it being maybe a little less topically common.

7. Me and My Husband

"Me and My Husband" might be one of the more vocally fun songs on the album. It pokes fun at the painful dullness of marriage after many years, and takes a pretty bleak look at a lifetime with one person.

It seems almost as if Mitski is looking at her own loneliness and then looking at the loneliness of other people, and how it isn't always about being alone. It can be lonely to be with another person too, and perhaps a perfectly un-lonely life is a false dream of greener grass when the reality is that grass only comes in lime yellow, no matter how you water it.

And boy, oh boy, does the protagonist in this song water it. Mitski repeats over and over the kind of thing you'd whisper to yourself to convince yourself to do the thing you feel you ought to do: "We're sticking together / Me and my husband / We're sticking together / Me and my husband / We are doing better."

Despite the impending feeling of hopelessness, however, she pushes on, holds on, and seems to be satisfied with having at least that for now.

But maybe not really for forever.

The instrumental in this song is really fun and bouncy, with a piano bar kind of feel. And it keeps the song playful and light.

Update (from having listened to the album a few more times): This song is one of my favorites right now.

8. Come into the Water

From the first few lines of "Come into the Water," you'll likely already notice how different it is from the previous song. It is slow and reverberant, and deeply self-aware.

Lyrically, it seems to be about love or music, and my vote is for music. In the song, Mitski wonders if her songs are generic, and is hesitant to jump all the way into her art, while simultaneously recognizing that it's a plunge she'll take if it's what people want.

She just needs a little push, a little encouragement.

Maybe this is a stretch; I'm not sure. But to me that's what it seems to be about, and as someone who works best when there's some accountability from another person keeping me in line, I get the sentiment!

This is a slow dance of a song, but one that you ought to dance along to alone, holding your arms around your own waist, and resting your head on your own shoulder.

9. Nobody

OK, obviously I know this one, too. It was the second single/music video she released in order to hype up this album.

I love the song, but am not crazy about the music video, personally. I like what she's trying to do in the video, but I think "Geyser" was a clearly superior piece, with this video appealing to a more general crowd.

It's a crowdpleaser! But I'm not a crowd.

And the song is more mad than I think the video was willing to go. (It tries to go there, but does it really get there? I don't know.) It's an amazing song to dance to, and creates the illusion of spinning and tripping and living in your loneliness until it becomes tolerable and bright and, ultimately, destructive.

I think of this song as really the centerpiece to this album, and I completely understand why it was the second single released. It showcases the fun and different style Mitski explores deeply on Be the Cowboy, and it summarizes the main storyline of the album almost exactly. A must-listen, and must-enjoy.

10. Pink in the Night

"Pink in the Night" is another pained love song, but it's imbued with a sweetness that some of the others lack. It captures the feeling of being in love with an ex or someone you've just started dating (or perhaps being in love with a craft that you haven't perfected it yet).

This one is pretty simple and one of the more pleasant, positive songs, lyrically. That said, I'm not wild for it. I think it's good to have a positive song on the album, and this one in some ways seems to be a foil to "Nobody," especially with the circular sounding "I love you" refrain, which repeats the line nine times.

But "Nobody" is the better song.

This one is just building us up to the end of the album, a pulling up of bootstraps in some way. We're almost to the end and we're feeling the heart of the album struggling to choose between love and loneliness and seeing both everywhere, back and forth, in turn.

11. A Horse Named Cold Air

Slow, short, simple, beautiful. "A Horse Named Cold Air" is a return to melancholy. It's a poem set to chords, and a little echo of sound to fill it all out.

I think Mitski is often her best and most expressive when she lets just a few words tell the story. It is not as though too many lyrics get her lost in the shuffle, but rather when she distills things down, they hit harder, especially amongst such a powerfully produced album as this.

This song says all it needs to, and it says it well. Her voice is quiet and commanding here, and the piano plays out a beautifully mournful tune. What else is there to want, let alone say?

12. Washing Machine Heart

This song is a turn. "Washing Machine Heart" is instrumentally exciting, although vocally a little plain. The lyrics seem incomprehensible at first ("Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside"), but they are not meaningless (of course).

In Mitski's own words, in an interview with The Outline: "It’s this woman who feels powerless and overcompensates by exercising extreme control on herself and on her environment, and just trying to be powerful within her own the limits of her her body and who she is, but kind of just unraveling a little bit because the amount of control she’s exercising on to herself maybe isn’t healthy or isn’t natural. There’s something more warm and human inside that she’s pushing down in order to appear strong to the world."

Raise your hand if you relate to that.

No? Just me? OK.

Given the meaning behind the song, I'm a little disappointed that I don't like the vocal melody more, but maybe that's just on me (or the fact that it doesn't seem to be a highly featured aspect of this song anyway). However, the instrumental is really fun and helps elevate this song into something a little more upbeat and exciting, and I can imagine it playing in the background of a montage movie scene where the protagonist is falling apart, but maybe not giving up quite yet.

13. Blue Light

"Blue Light" sounds almost like it's starting in medias res. This is the movie scene where the protagonist does fall apart and is giving up. Or is like, doing drugs or something. There's joy in this destruction.

This is the song you sing after staying home all weekend and driving yourself absolutely stir crazy, despite the fact that you don't really have anywhere to go anyway.

It's short and strange, but if that isn't typical at this point, then I don't know what is.

This is by no means a filler song—nor do I think any of the songs on this album have been filler songs, but there is the sense that it's a small scene in a larger movie. Important to telling the full story, but perhaps not your favorite scene in the whole film, even if there are aesthetically many things about it to appreciate.

14. Two Slow Dancers

I've heard this one before, too, thanks to the lyric video above. It's a sane and quiet conclusion to an album that tracks a building madness, and it lowers your feet back down onto the ground after Mitski's swung you around a few times.

It has some haunting cinematic sound effects within it, but the story being told is one of a distant happy (maybe happy?) memory. Not wanting to change. Not wanting to be an adult. Wishing things could go back to how they were, just for a moment.

Maybe, the song seems to be suggesting, in the chaos of life, our memories are our attempts to put  the constraints of sanity and clarity onto life. We tell ourselves happy stories that make sense, because it brings us comfort, and makes us feel like our lives are on some kind of track where things make sense and add up.

But the reality of life is not so clean and simple. And we know that, too, even as we try to forget it.

Be the Cowboy came out on August 17, 2018, and can be found on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, and Bandcamp.


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