One of the many relatable details about Mitski—the Japanese-American singer-songwriter born Mitski Miyawaki, but known among her burgeoning fan base simply by her first name—is her relatively unhindered Twitter presence. Though most 27-year-olds don’t boast Mitski’s 80,000-plus followers, her dispatches retain the humor of any young person caught in the stupefied daze of social-media addiction. And like her music, Mitski’s tweets reveal a casual and disarming vulnerability: “if u have a presentation or meeting or just have to go show ur face in public when u feel like utter unpresentable garbage I suggest u go see my tiny desk video,” she writes in one, “where I showed up to NPR to be documented forever looking like a big pulsing void and radiating pain and I still did it.”
That “Tiny Desk” video is worth watching. Perhaps it’s her expression—vacant and impatient—or the way her hair is thrown over her shoulder and eye, or how she rocks her body away from the mic to heft her electric guitar to her face and wail into its strings, but she is pulsing. And when she looks directly into the camera during her final song and sings, “And you’d say you love me and look in my eyes / But I know, through mine, you’re looking in yours,” the source of the pain is irrelevant—the performance does, as her tweet suggests, radiate.
“Geyser,” the opening track on Mitski’s latest album, Be the Cowboy, is irradiated with a similar sense of pain, though this time it builds to an eruption, a delirious upsurge that reaches its crescendo in a crashing drumbeat. No longer the quiet sense of shock, but perhaps the next stage of grief: bright, sparkling anger. “I’m attracted to violence, but not even violence towards anything or anyone,” she told an interviewer. “That’s the thing that’s most complicated. It’s just this scream, and I don’t know what the scream is about—I don’t know what it’s at, I don’t know what it’s for, but it’s there, and I guess I’m just trying to express it in the best way possible.”
Ever since college, rendering acute pain into sound has been Mitski’s specialty. Her first two albums, Lush (2012) and Retired From Sad, New Career in Business (2013), were her junior- and senior-year projects at Purchase College. Using classmates to fill out her band—at one point, she was backed by a 60-person student orchestra—Mitski produced a unique sound: bighearted indie rock that, while bristling as though ready to attack, proved itself able to jump nimbly from rambling, Fiona Apple–style piano confessionals (“Bag of Bones”) to cheery, tongue-in-cheek pop (“Strawberry Blond”).
Both albums were critically praised, and since then Mitski has released a new one every two years. Life in a hollowed-out middle class is the crucial context to her lyrics, which give the economic anxiety and debilitating debt that millennials are saddled with their emotional due. “It’s a windy afternoon / Can’t afford to buy my food / Or the drive I need to go / Further than they said I’d go,” she sings in “Jobless Monday,” a track from her 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek. In “Class of 2013,” she sings about one humbling millennial hallmark: moving back home. Hoping for mercy, she asks the universe—and her mom—for a break: “Mom, I’m tired / Can I sleep in your house tonight? / …I’ll leave once I figure out / How to pay for my own life too.”
Mitski transmits many of these anxieties in a deceptively upbeat register that can often come across like an anthem: Despite their bleak subject matter, her songs sail skyward in waves of straightforward, urgent guitar and drums. But she doesn’t let you shake the feeling that there’s a quiet, frustrated scream building: Femininity, and in particular the experience of being a woman, gets searing treatment. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / …And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl,” she sings on “Your Best American Girl,” from 2016’s Puberty 2.
These dual features—generational complaint and forthright vulnerability—gather at the center of Be the Cowboy, an album that pitches between the cool swagger of John Wayne and the uncertainty of an acutely sensitive 27-year-old woman. “I thought I’d traveled a long way / But I had circled / The same old sin,” she sings in “A Horse Named Cold Air.” Then, as if to parody her own forlorn image, she gives us “Me and My Husband,” a bouncing piano-and-horn jingle that opens with a long sigh—only to find Mitski interrogating her feelings of ambivalence and tenderness in relationships.
As a musician, Mitski draws on a rich and varied inventory of genres, from disco to twangy western hymns to bouncy pop to some of the anger and discontent of punk. They’re not all suited to Mitski’s bright, fluty voice, but each genre jump is a reminder that she can croon, and trill, and chant, and sometimes yodel—fluctuations that she has employed with haphazard abandon previously, but that, on Be the Cowboy, seem more measured and methodical.
Mitski’s voice, both lyrically and musically—her wide-ranging ear, her startling juxtapositions of mood and social observation—all work in the service of channeling her loneliness into a force for good. “I just need someone to kiss / Give me one good honest kiss / And I’ll be all right,” she sings in “Nobody.” Desire, in Mitski’s imagining, is an all-consuming drive; it burns you up, but it also makes you alive. When she does get the kiss, several songs later in “Pink in the Night,” she counters gamely: “I didn’t do it right / Can I try again, try again, try again?”
Her music is similarly voracious, able to metabolize as much emotion as possible in under three minutes. But desire, on Be the Cowboy, takes on a different tenor. In her earlier work, it’s the feeling itself that she chases, every bit as much as its satisfaction: “Tell me ‘don’t’ / So I can crawl back in,” she sings in “First Love/Late Spring,” from Bury Me at Makeout Creek. But on Be the Cowboy, Mitski also asks what happens when we want too much—when desire is all we have. “Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming,” she sings in “Nobody.” “Did its people want too much, too? Did its people want too much?”