In May 2018, Mitski Miyawaki released the leading single for her highly-anticipated Be the Cowboy album. The art for the single “Geyser” shows the Japanese-American indie star against a wall, coyly peeking from behind large sunglasses, and a white-gloved hand. The art is reminiscent of a modern film noir poster.
The art direction is spot-on for the rest of the record. Released in August 2018 Be the Cowboy is, in a word, cinematic. From the art to the filmic lyricism, Mitski forms iterations of Hollywood heroines, oddly Americana. “Old Friend” conjures up a character straight from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks: “Meet me at Blue Diner/ I’ll take coffee and talk about nothing.” “Two Slow Dancers” opens with the evocative line, “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here?” like a nostalgic rom-com drama.
The sounds of the album are just as varied as its short-film songs. “Geyser” is an eruptive, epic opener. “Lonesome Love” is the jangly track that is closest to the eponymous cowboy sound. The shining gem “Nobody” is an upbeat, vaguely 80’s indie pop track juxtaposed with the most melancholic lyrics. It opens with the line “My god I’m so lonely/ So I open the window/ To hear sounds of people,” and the chorus is just the word “nobody” repeated with whimsy.
Since Mitski’s third album (her first two albums were self-produced and piano-heavy) and first label record Bury Me at Makeout Creek, with which she began to break into the indie music scene, listeners have heeded her music as their own personal catharsis. Both Bury Me and it’s follow up Puberty 2 (2016) and their raw, noise-guitar sound lent itself well to emotional connection, especially for her women and WOC fans.
Make no mistake, as too many listeners and critics alike have made in the past: her music is not a confessional, her songs not your personal absolution. In an interview with Pitchfork, she laments this gendered phenomenon: “People say, ‘I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal.’ Yes, it is personal. But that’s so gendered. There’s no feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe she’s a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art.’” Perhaps this is why she has framed BTC as such; there is nothing more constructed, more narrative than a Hollywood film.
In a sense, this is what the title has grown to be for the singer. In an interview with The Outline, Mitski explains that the title of her album was about identity formation to cope with her own: “I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, ‘Be the cowboy you wish to see in the world,’ whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity. Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself, ‘well, what would a cowboy do?’”
This mantra has shot her up to various 2018 Best-Of lists, including the top spot on Pitchfork’s annual ranking. And as we ride into 2019, Be the Cowboy is sure to have us all asking our inner cowboys for guidance, for bravado, and for a little extra step in our boots for the upcoming year.