Sunday, August 19, 2018
Perfect Union Notions
Two years ago Mitski Miyawaki became an indie star with the release of Puberty 2, her fourth studio album. It featured on virtually every year-end best albums list put out by critics and soon she was supporting The Pixies on tour. Another tour with Lorde and a short film appearance followed. It wasn’t hard to see why everyone suddenly wanted a piece of her because Puberty 2 cleverly played around with the notion of a second skin emerging from an artist, one who had honed her aesthetic and wasn’t afraid for the world to see her brain ticking with blissful ideas.
Sure enough, immense pressure was put on its follow-up and while Be The Cowboy is no sophomore slump, it comes up short of matching Puberty 2. In a way, it had to yet criticism of its mere being will be a case of one’s discerning ear nitpicking an artist still at the height of her creative powers. Mitski’s approach to music is akin to St. Vincent: both ride tremendous emotional crests that translate to fantastic emo-pop music that questions itself as it entertains. It’s the eternal questioning that makes them fascinating. But at moments, when they get what they want, things that naturally trigger their creative process slow to a dithering, unsure beat.
Be The Cowboy finds its few moments of success when Mitski questions, or at least pushes some hesitancy into, the idea of what represents perfect union notions. The opening two tracks work well in this nebulous unison: Geyser unspools like an application for her lover’s heart with her own self-imposed terms while Why Didn’t You Stop Me? lashes out at said lover for allowing her to succeed.
And it’s exactly at that point—after track two—that she runs into headwind that baffles her and, in turn, the listener. It’s as if she comes up blank in this involvement that she’s wanted her entire life but it within its own confines wasn’t anything remarkable to begin with. She acknowledges this nakedly on A Pearl (‘nobody told me it ended/ and it left a pearl in my head/ and I roll it around…’).
Unlike its superior predecessor, Puberty 2, Mitski isn’t tackling her own multiple-personalities here but rather her new identity and the Other. It’s hard to give rhyme and reason to the Other while trying to separate from it and lyrically it shows the longer Be The Cowboy goes on. Even when she utters the line you’ve heard everyone cite in their review, (‘cause nobody butters me up like you/ and nobody fucks me like me…’) you can hear the conflict tearing at her. It’s as if she’s lingering over found happiness slipping away and unable to halt the slide. This damage is pretty cool to hear her ticking time bomb approach to it: from that protracted sigh before Me And My Husband begins to Two Slow Dancers quietly playing out over the credits of this train wreck.
The closing five tracks save for standout Washing Machine Heart and the aforementioned Two Slow Dancers cause the most damage. Mitski gets caught in two minds and neither helps the other to decide how to forge ahead. It’s clear by this point she has conceded that the union she’s spent so much time fantasizing about has ended but faced with loneliness or the status quo, Be The Cowboy keeps its head down, muting the fireworks of emotion we got from Puberty 2.
We’ve been down this road with her before, alas, to a more stern examination in spite of the mess. Maybe the point Mitski makes then is that it takes several of these messes to create the bonds of love and compatibility. Maybe loneliness is something we can’t escape or bury into the time we spend trying to fit perfectly into someone else. It’s these few moments of unguarded emotion, the sheer relapse she drowns in, that seeps too much into this otherwise solid project. In the meanwhile, while she sorts her shit out so we never have to suffer silently through tracks like Come Into The Water or A Horse Named Cold Air again, I’m still #teamMitski.