It was my first visit to Hong Kong last month. Meandering through its bustling streets in a very humid summer, I found myself tuning in to the surface noise of the city; the hazy hum of inaudible conversations, the odd and hypnotic tempo of fleeting taxis at rush hour. A few moments in one of the busiest cities in the world, and you’re instantly lost in delirious chains of neon lights, market stalls and flashing exit signs. Amidst the flurry of faces, hurrying to and from the workplace, I struggled to believe it was possible to emotionally connect to others–to feel like an individual—in a city so densely populated and yet so isolating. I thought of my mum, who, after the Vietnam War, was forced to move temporarily to one of Hong Kong’s notoriously cramped resettlement estates with nothing but a forged identity card and some cash which her mother had sewn into her underwear. Decades after this, my mum recollected the tiny space of her 120-square-foot no-window apartment. “It’s very difficult to be kind, when you’re suffering so much”, she said to me, after we had encountered several extremely rude Hong Kong street sellers and authorities. Yet even throughout the bleakest of moments, living on pennies a day, something universal and undeniably human bound her to her equally alienated community–from her colleagues at the factory, to the Dim Sum lady, and the chatty women in the Chinese launderettes. The ability to glean raw, universal truths about what it means to belong and to confront loneliness is what, for me, makes Mitski’s music so unique and so powerful. To actually venture onto the treacherous streets, to bare your vulnerabilities as a human with human needs, takes immense courage.
On her latest release, Be The Cowboy, Mitski grapples with the loneliness of being a defiant symbol—a welcome blot to the white wash of indie rock—as well as the loneliness of being someone and how it can feel so much like being no one. The persona at the heart of the album, a woman attempting to keep it all together on a stage, lets us into the mind and body of an exhausted adult, frustrated by the inhuman pressure to appear strong to the world. Unafraid of voicing the pain of modern life, the album’s sincerity bristles at the edges with vitality and wit. “My God, I’m so lonely / So I open the window / To hear sounds of people”, sings Mitski on the infectious ‘Nobody’. The recursive, thrumming ticks of the opening hi-hats are insistently mechanic; but around that looping temporality, Mitski’s voice signals an unravelling—a figuring out of self and sense within concrete and absented time and space. The ache of Mitski’s vowels, as she pours outside her window “Give me one good honest kiss”, finally reaches out and grasps a soaring chorus, which feels like unleashing a torrent of desire and energy that has been building up inside. Deceptively up-tempo, we are led—arm-in-arm with Mitski—out onto what seems to be a crowded rococo dancefloor, only to then discover that we are utterly, and unapologetically, alone. The pulse of ‘No…body’ leaves us spiralling in our solitude, as it thrashes into a voluminous liberation, where we, together with Mitski, rattle against our loneliness but ultimately find sanctuary in our recognition of it.
And even when everything we thought we ever wanted—meaningful human company—lands itself in our hands, it can break, shards of frustrated feelings unable to slot together like they had before. “Meet me at Blue Diner / I’ll take coffee and talk about nothing, baby”. On ‘Old Friend’, Mitski’s melancholic voice pulls us into a captivating liminal space, where we’re reunited simultaneously with someone we used to hang out with, and an unspoken old love. The acoustic guitar and the piano lingers stunningly underneath the swelling synth, letting us into their secret. “I haven’t told anyone / Just like we promised.” But their two faces blend and mesh into one, and instead of stepping into our lovers’ world, we fall into solitary fissures of silence. Both withdrawing from and submitting to that all-too-familiar space of confusion, Mitski is able to bring forth a universal hurt that seeps into our bodies and blossoms in our darker corners.
Burning—but fleeting—desires and passions wind through every inch of the record, which even seeks an almost masochistic indulgence in the pleasure of ripping the seams of a long-term relationship. On ‘A Pearl’, Mitski reveals how intoxicating it is to hold onto pain. “You think your life is horrible when you’re heartbroken, but when you no longer have love or heartbreak in your life, you think, wasn’t it nice when things still hurt? There’s a nostalgia for blind love, a wonderful heady kind of love,” she says about the track. In spite of the messiness of reality, the throes of an unlabelled affair and gut-thrown yearning, there’s something special about those confused but meaningful moments of intimacy—it, after all, restores the feeling of being human in an increasingly digitalised world. Choked and tangible, Mitski’s crackling words trace the intersections of pain and joy, left in this album to its barest, with just a single vocal layer rather than the conventional double.
Speaking of her lyric art, Mitski underlines her devotion to raw, human simplicity: “I don’t know who said it, but someone said that truly intelligent people, people who truly understand their subject, can describe and explain it to a five-year-old, or a six-year-old. That’s important for me to keep in mind. I want to take really complex ideas and describe them in simple enough terms for everyone listening to understand.” Nothing about Be The Cowboy feels gratuitous; there’s a simple sense of presenting fans and new listeners with fragile shards of Mitski’s craft, an insight into her alchemic ability to stem pain with precise, emotionally raw words and chords. My personal favourite of the album, is the curtain farewell—‘Two Slow Dancers’. We find ourselves forlorn in a school gymnasium, though we’re no longer in the bounds of adolescence. Musically, it’s nostalgic and wisened. The warmness of the keyboard immediately invites you to a pair of reuniting old lovers. “We’re just two slow dancers, last ones out” feels heavy in the mouth, like the stone of a plum. It’s an intoxicating dream, but Mitski’s pair of elderly lovers are unperturbed by the passing of time. Though lacking the vigour of youth, they still search for it. Her voice is tinged with hope and regret, light and dark, painting images of times sought after and forgotten, like the tug of fading summer days not quite ready to let go. A perfect close to a tear-jerking journey, we’re left rejuvenated with a new sense of purpose.
Forever an inspiration of mine, Mitski reminds me of the need to exercise a degree of control in life—the importance of writing your own narrative, and of defining yourself against the way the world expects you to behave as an Asian woman, or as an immigrant. From the little strands of self-doubt and loneliness that are strewn throughout the record, Be the Cowboy is a chilling, poignant, challenging and incredibly important piece of music.
-- Georgina Quach, September 20, 2018