Two years after her 2016 album Puberty 2, a release that led to tours with Lorde and Pixies and moved her out of the smaller clubs as a headliner, Mitski Miyawaki took the unusual step of trying to warn fans via social media and interviews about her next album. Saying that it wasn't going to be as personal, she implied that those who related to her and tracks like "Your Best American Girl" might be disappointed that she was setting aside the perspective of an outsider longing to fit in. Instead, the follow-up, Be the Cowboy, finds her adopting the persona of a married woman who fits in and lives up to expectations but longs to break free. Song titles like "Me and My Husband" and "Washing Machine Heart" hint at what's in store. What hasn't changed is Mitski's intense, impulsive style of songwriting and arranging that, while often catchy, can keep listeners off-balance. (The album was produced by Puberty 2's Patrick Lyland.) Case in point, some of the tracks here are polished with a sparkling synth palette, yet nothing feels slick and easy. Rather, the sheen is conspicuous, seeming to symbolize artifice on songs like the synth poppy "Why Didn't You Stop Me" and the disco-injected "Nobody." As if to underscore the idea of unreliable appearances, the former offers the line "I look for a picture of you to keep in my pocket, but I can't seem to find one where you look like I remember." Right from the overshot volume on the album's opening organ attack, abrasive sounds also put cracks in the surface. Stomping, clapping, and relentless keyboard bleeps permeate the brutal, danceable "Washing Machine Heart," evoking the appliance as well as the wife's frustration ("I'm not wearing my usual lipstick/I thought maybe we would kiss tonight"). Elsewhere, "Me and My Husband" opens unambiguously with a heavy sigh. After passing moments of more raucous rock, atmospheric synths, dance rhythms, irregular percussion, melodic sweetness, and dissonance, Be the Cowboy closes on the tender "Two Slow Dancers," the album longest track at four minutes. Wistful, string-like keyboard tones accompany sentimental lyrics that conclude that the couple has grown apart. In the end, rather than being a disappointment, Be the Cowboy's point of view provides a brilliant twist, one that channels all the unease, unpredictability, and intuitiveness of Mitski's previous work -- even for those who don't take in the lyrics.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson