On being the cowboy: a review of Mitski’s “Be the Cowboy”

Story by Richelle Chen

Sincerest apologies for the amount of cowboy analogies you are going to endure in this piece below.

Late Thursday evening of August 20th, I find myself (probably not unlike many others that night) sprawled across my bedroom floor, headphones snug around my ears, and a fresh Kleenex™ box set down next to me. I turn off the all the lights in my bedroom. Only a small warm glow comes from my iPhone on Night Shift mode. I was expecting a few things in the next 32 minutes (the short runtime of this record), but I was not prepared for my reaction to the masterpiece that is Mitski’s 5th studio album: “Be the Cowboy.”

It’s no surprise that this record made me cry. All of Mitski’s past albums have had elements of sadness, loss, death, but “Be the Cowboy” confronts that emptiness head on. Mitski throws a lasso around the loose bull of loneliness, tightens the rope, and brings the abyss right to her. She did a lot of introspection on this record and it forced me to do the same. Some say it’s her saddest album, but to me it also feels like her most triumphant. She’s taking responsibility for her emotions. She’s accepting her reality and finding beauty in the process of life, in the hopelessness of heartbreak. She’s lassoing it in. Mitski is the Cowboy in this cinematic universe.

There’s not really another umbrella term that Mitski’s music fits under besides indie, but what does indie even mean anymore? I’m trying to figure it out myself, but Mitski’s style can’t be classified as “rock” or “pop” or any other genre for that matter. She’s innovative and steers away from a conventional structure. Her variety of composition coupled with her disciplined voice gives you this feeling like you’re the lead actress in an Ozu film. The album is 32 minutes total, the majority of songs averaging around two minutes. You know how sometimes when you listen to a song, you find yourself waiting for the “good part” to come? There are no “good parts” to wait for on “Be the Cowboy.” Every part is the “good part.”

“Be the Cowboy” hits all the Mitski staples—unsuspecting key changes and a palpable sense of longing—but I think we can all agree that upon first listen, no one can really predict where Mitski is going to take any given song. On “Be the Cowboy,” every song is an ephemeral, but scenic highway drive. This is a versatile record. Mitski has mastered and combined many a genre—you’re transported from a disco, to a jazz club, to sitting on a rock chair on your porch in the country gazing at the open fields of the prairie waiting for your husband to return from the war. Each track feels intentionally placed without feeling too contrived, and I felt like my threshold of feeling was getting stronger and stronger as each track went by as if my heart was doing deadlifts.

I can’t lie, when the title of this album was announced, my little heart jumped out of my chest, put on some cowboy boots, and said “yee-haw!” As an Asian-American who didn’t really grow up in America (I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand), I’ve always had a fascination with cowboy culture and how romantic being “quintessentially American” was. Cowboys are the most romantic characterization of any archetype. I would listen to “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Waylon Jennings on a regular basis, and this Western world was a place that was so mysterious and so far away. It was not a world into which I would ever conventionally fit. But hearing it come from Mitski’s mouth was just so… validating. The thing about being a “small Asian woman” with a Leo Moon is that I always forget that I’m a “small Asian woman” until someone reminds me. In my head, I’m always a cowboy. Cool, composed, and confident. And always on a horse. But right now I’m still lying on my bedroom floor.

For the purposes of this review, I scribbled my string of thoughts while listening to the album on the back of an unopened phone bill.


“Be the Cowboy”’s first single opens the album with an ominous, droning organ (and a glitch that makes you feel like you might be entering Westworld Season 1). It then steps into a hopeful anthem of longing: “You’re my number one, you’re the one I want.” First of all…this is the song you open with? Are you kidding me, Mitski??? This is the song you open with? I start bawling the moment the strings hit at 1:18. “Though I’m a geyser / Feeling it bubble from below / Here it call, Here it call, Here it call to me / Constantly.” This is the most triumphant song on the album.


I have little time in between to recover from the aftermath of “Geyser” as I’m immediately thrown into the dance beat of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” She starts off with some lyrics I think our generation feels hard: “I know I ended, but why won’t you chase after me?” This is the year of us demanding what we want and not apologizing for what we want anymore. It goes back and forth between possibly the most catchy synth hook Mitski has ever written and frustrated electric guitar riffs. I feel like I’m in the middle of a game of cat and mouse as the synths turn into horns.


Immediately after the first five notes leading into Mitski’s signature chord strumming, I decide that if I’m going to come close to an emotional breakdown, it will probably be during this song. I love the acoustic guitar and piano underneath the synth. There is so much longing in the vocals, her voice alone practically forced me to call my ex. Mitski has so much power. There’s hardly a release in this track as she sounds like she’s holding her breath throughout the entirety of the song. It’s as if she’s trying to get all her words out in one breath. A sense of bubbling anxiety mixed in with missing someone intensely emerges: “At Blue Diner, I’ll take anything you want to give me, baby.” The sentiment of this track feels like an an extension of “I Don’t Smoke” of “Bury Me At Makeout Creek” for me. “If you want to be mean, be mean to me / I can take it and put it inside of me / If your hands need to break more than trinkets in your room / You can lean on my arm as you break my heart.” It’s subtle, but I think this might be the album’s best depiction of emotional repression.


We’re on song #4 and I’m already emotionally spent, but I’m rallying. I’m ready to fight this war with Mitski. But who is she at a war with? Herself. I feel like this is acceptance of not being okay and wondering why your partner can’t accept it too. When the guitar kicks in, I imagine Mitski on a stage, lying across a white baby grand piano in a cowboy hat.


Our first country song on the album? “Cause nobody butters me up like you / And nobody fucks me like me.” This is too real, I don’t even want to talk about it.


I love that Mitski has come to terms with her mortality and forces us to face it with her as we ascend with her chord progressions up to Heaven.


Can we talk about how this song starts off with a deep, weary sigh? Is this how I will feel when I’ve been cuffed? I sigh along with her and I feel like I’m entering a musical number of sorts. “Me and my husband / We’re sticking together / Me and my husband / We are doing better.” I honestly can’t wait for this kind of love.


This is the shortest song on the record coming in at 1:34. “I didn’t know I had a dream / I didn’t know until I saw you / So would you tell me if you want me? / Cause I can’t move until you show me.” This song is quiet and subdued with hidden layers, much like its character. She’s quiet, she’s waiting. I’m also quiet and I’m also waiting.


I can’t help but laugh at myself when I hear the opening line of “Be the Cowboy”’s second single, “Nobody”: “My God, I’m so lonely.” I debate whether or not to get up and dance in the dark. I don’t. I keep laughing at the realness of me listening to this song in my room by myself in the dark, but then I’m transported to a jazzy dance club. Somehow, the poppiness and brightness of the music coupled with the lyrics makes it sadder than if the music matched the despair of the lyrics. How many times can Mitski scream “nobody” into the abyss in three minutes? The answer is 36. You feel it in your soul when Mitski’s enunciated “nobodys” turn into a hoarse, tear-ridden, phlegm-filled whisper.  


Boy, wouldn’t it be cool to feel this way about somebody? I feel hopeful as the bass drum makes its way during the I love you/I love you/I love yous. I’m glowing without anyone to glow about.


Easily the most chilling song on the album with the sparseness of the piano and Mitski’s crooning.


Okay, this might actually win for saddest song award on the album. “Baby, though I’ve closed my eyes/I know who you pretend I am/Do mi ti/Why not me?” The upbeat synth and drums and Mitski asking “Why Not Me?” over and over again hurts me. The distortion at the end doesn’t say anything but it means a lot.


More cowbell!!!


The warmness of the keyboard immediately invites you into this tale of these lovers. Swelling of the synth is so emotional. How can a SYNTH make you emotional? I feel myself melt deeper into the floor each time she repeats “To think that we could stay the same”, feeling as though I could disappear forever. But then there’s a switch. “Two slow dancers/Last ones out”. As the strings build, I feel myself rise from the puddle of my tears, and I emerge. Still completely drenched in my own tears, but with me I bring a white horse and a cowboy hat and a new sense of purpose.

We all wanted the cowboy. We all longed for the cowboy. But with this album, Mitski shows us that we can be, and maybe already are, The Cowboy. Thank U Mitski for teaching me how to ride a horse into the horizon.

Mitski memes curated by Alli Menscher

photo of Mitski by Bao Ngo

terrible photoshop job of Mitski on a horse by Richelle Chen