cowboys

The first note of “Geyser,” the opening track on Mitski’s new album, Be The Cowboy, is almost unbearable and it lasts for a long, long time. It’s like nails on a chalkboard just barely rendered into music. During the full week when I listened to this song and only this song on repeat, I thought I might have damaged my hearing by blasting its initial extended screech inside my ears several dozen times a day. But it wasn’t like I was going to stop. 

“Geyser” does the only thing I truly like or care about in music, where it builds and builds and builds until everything matters. The day transforms from greyish dullness to cinematic urgency, infused with forward-driving speed-veined bigness. This urgency is the whole reason to put a song on repeat, and the reason a good song at the end of an episode of television can unfairly elevate the episode out of mundanity. “Geyser” is about longing, about wanting someone so much as to reject all better offers. It’s about the way that desire blinders us, winnowing the world down to a single other person. This kind of - often ruinous, often wrong-headed and rotten-hearted - desire is a relief for the uncertain. If everything feels equally mediocre, at least desire renders full focus onto one object, even if the object is, in hindsight, embarrassing or inexplicable. The crashing waterfall longing in “Geyser” eliminates choice, and sets a path with only one lane and no exits, just a single dead-end destination, I just cant be without you. People are often criticized for writing about the object of their desire without rendering them in full personhood - I only know that you’re obsessed with them, I don’t know who they are - but that’s the point. The desire itself is so much bigger than whoever it fixes on. This mode of relationship is unsustainable but while it lasts it gives everything edges sharp and bright as glass. Be The Cowboy is about unsustainable choices, about the way that self-sabotage keeps you returning to yourself until there’s no choice but for that self to be strengthened by it, polished and flinty as a new diamond. 

The title, Be The Cowboy, is a confrontation and a reversal. Cowboys are out of fashion, as much an anachronism as rock music itself. They belong to an era that feels distant, the place where our dads all lived and maybe still live. Back then, cowboy was the covetable identity performed by men who played rock music in arenas. This music was a particularly and maybe even horribly American form, because the cowboy is a particularly and horribly American archetype, looming irrelevant out of the twentieth century, the man who could do anything and would never ask for help, the man riding alone with a trusty horse who is his only real friend into a dusty, inhospitable, and unknown landscape, seeking adventures and seeking to put his body up against available difficulties, to test out his own toughness, looking for a place big enough to be alone in, a promised land empty of society and civility but full of things to fight. 

Cowboy stories are about feelings, even if those feelings are overwrought masculine ones. Everything is big for the cowboy, everything swaggers. Loss swaggers, too, and so does vulnerability. The old joke is that country songs are a list of losses - you play a country song backward and you get your house back, your woman back, your dog back - but the loss itself is a swagger: Look at what I survived, look what I can take, look what didn’t break me. The cowboy is a rodeo performer, getting hurt on purpose as entertainment for a crowd. It’s the ability to stay on the horse, and the ability to get up from bone-crunching injuries and laugh and brush oneself off and come back for more. Be The Cowboy is a rodeo performance, a swaggering entertainment out of hurt, performing as much the ability to seek out injury as the ability to get up, brush oneself off, and ask for more. 

A person like Mitski is definitionally supposed to not be the cowboy; shutting out someone like her from this identity is as much its definition as riding up through the desert on a big horse. Mitski seizes the image of the cowboy at the roots and takes it for herself, distilling it down to what matters. She declares herself a cowboy through the swagger of self-sabotage and vulnerability, and in this way she makes the used-up archetype feel relevant again. The cowboy is a poisoned, toxic figure, but it offers something useful when turned on itself, when mined for the parts that apply perhaps most to the people it originally shut out and silenced. 

On “Lonesome Love.” Mitski sings, because nobody butters me up like you / and nobody fucks me like me. Basically put, the songs on Be The Cowboy, like the songs on a lot of canonical sad-and-horny albums, are about how we fuck ourselves over. But that line with the turn at its end - me where one might expect you - at once implies self-sabotage and self-sufficiency, not as separate items but as one fused state. She doesn’t need someone else to fuck her over, but that means she also doesn’t need someone else to fuck her. The album’s toughness is in clear-eyed bad choices. It’s the bluster and swagger that rips cheerfully at the wound. It acknowledges agency and accountability and acknowledges how they make the hurt worse. It allows how this is funny, and funny because it’s worse. It is easy to let the ways you’ve been fucked over edge you out of the center of the frame, to cede the story to someone else, to make you small, to make you boring. Rock music, if it even exists anymore, is happy songs about sad things. It’s the defiance of turning your hurt into a bop everybody can dance to at a party. This is a swagger, a rodeo move, a refusal to be beaten down. The pain doesn’t stop me from partying; in fact it’s what creates the party. This swagger means ownership, getting to be the only person who fucks yourself over. Being the architect of one’s own destiny and the captain of one’s own ship - being the cowboy - also means being the villain in one’s own story, being the one responsible for the fuck-ups, the sabotages, the wrecks. It’s accountability as a swaggering chorus that builds, pulsing to cinematic bigness, throwing your own mistakes into the center of the frame and not letting anyone else claim them.

It’s been a real year for high school slow dance songs, from The National’s “The Dark Side of the Gym” to “Two Slow Dancers” on here. Ending the album on this delicate, vulnerable note, is another rodeo trick, one that ultimately enacts the same swaggering square-up to pain. This small, perfect piece of music about love and the end of love is an acknowledgement that there are no forevers. Such a sentiment seems trite and obvious on its surface. The song is the sound of that tender moment, in the mutually acknowledged end of something, when things get very quiet and sad, a last few minutes in the shared familiarities, the language left even when love is gone. This is heartbreaking, but it’s still obvious romantic pop-song fare. And then it rises, in just as addictive a pulsing howl as the album’s opening track, at the lines to think that we could stay the same, to think that we could stay the same, and a larger frame clicks into place. It’s a song about such a horribly adult experience. We get a few years, and then it wants us back / it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again, she sings. Both rock music and cowboy swagger are supposed to be games for the young, genres for people still possessed of a full hand of second chances, still rich with future time. But one more way to live in accountability, clear eyed, rejecting self-pity, walking away from the rodeo taking your wounds as a point of pride, is to acknowledge decay and finiteness, the fact that the losses always eventually win. Staring down these facts with no particular drama or struggle, as in this song, is a kind of swagger, a show-off trick, the ability to not flinch, to reach in a rising line of music for the things that are impossible, and then to let them go. The album dissolves into hard-earned resolution, the end of the night, the end of the song, the cowboy fearless enough to look death in the face.