Album Review: Mitski, ‘Laurel Hell’

    When you listen to Mitski, a single line can feel so wrenching in its intensity that it’s a wonder there’s a whole song wrapped around it. Although she has been mostly inactive over the past few years, her music has exploded in popularity, breaking out on platforms like TikTok, where songs can only be heard for a few seconds and the lyrics displayed on-screen. Even reduced to another social media trend or an endless stream of memes, just a moment from a Mitski song can offer a glimpse into her complicated universe of feeling: Few songwriters are as adept at expressing the all-consuming yet fleeting nature of outsized emotions, how the constant push-and-pull between fear and desire can feel both isolating and enthralling. It’s also a gateway to experiencing the full richness and complexity her music acquires once you put it in context, which is as true of revisiting her earlier work as it is when delving into her latest album, Laurel Hell.

    More than obsessive identification or analysis, Mitski’s music strives towards immersion. She’s always had a knack for evocative album openers, and Laurel Hell’s ‘Valentine, Texas’ is no exception, following in the footsteps of Be the Cowboy’s ‘Geyser’. Despite the ambivalence of its narrator – a trick Mitski pulls off throughout the album – the song’s invitation to step into the dark feels as tender as it is disarming, her voice drifting through a fog of droning organ before being lifted into the sky. Her lyrics lean more than ever towards abstract imagery, but the way she employs it is as vivid and potent as ever. Over the course of the album, she navigates her relationship with the dark, later opening her arms to it, until it eventually ceases to be a metaphor. The mere mention of the word “fire” is enough shift the energy of a song, clearing the path halfway through ‘Valentine, Texas’ and invoking a world of passion on ‘There’s Nothing Left for You’. She introduces her most resonant metaphor on lead single ‘Working for the Knife’, in which she laments the suffocating reality of working life, but the next track turns it from a cold object of systemic oppression to a fiery, violent part of the self.

    If Be the Cowboy twisted pop structures into something forlorn and introspective, Laurel Hell’s biggest, most straightforward moments aren’t so much an attempt to break through the mainstream as they are to make it out of a self-perpetuating cycle. In other words, they seem genuinely brighter and more extroverted, even as the narrator wrestles with her own identity. “Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight?” Mitski sings on the opening track, and the rest of the album alternates between upbeat, danceable synthpop and slow, ethereal ballads – a clear dichotomy compared to her previous albums’ distinctly dynamic fusion of styles. Knowing these songs went through several iterations over the years, including country and punk versions, might make you long for a more varied collection than Laurel Hell, which does feel somewhat slight by comparison. But not only does the album’s divided focus align with its conflicting moods of disaffection and longing, it also sets the stage for some of Mitski’s most strikingly cinematic offerings on either end of the spectrum – from the defiant ‘The Only Heartbreaker’, co-written with Adele and Taylor Swift collaborator Dan Wilson, to the sublime ‘Heat Lightning’.

    But the contradictions that have defined Mitski’s music so far – whether big or small, direct or subtle – are still ever-present. The album’s title refers to a term used to describe laurel bushes that grow in thickets so dense and wide they create a maze that’s beautiful and hormonious in appearance yet poisonous and impossible to pass through. As Laurel Hell oscillates between futility and hope, the singer restlessly contemplating which path to take, the two roads start to look eerily similar. “Sometimes I think I am free/ Until I find I’m back in line again,” she sings over the steady pulse of ‘Everyone’, caught in the same loop that runs through 2018’s ‘A Horse Named Cold Air’ (“I thought I’d traveled a long way/ But I had circled/ The same old sin.”) ‘Working for the Knife’ was written in late 2019, when Mitski had privately decided to quit the music industry but was reminded of her contractual obligation to make another album. The song’s narrative most closely resembles her own, but its attitude towards the future is still ambiguous: “Maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change.”

    Soon enough, Mitski falls back into hopelessness, this time surrendering herself. “Not much I can change/ I give it up to you,” she sings on ‘Heat Lightning’, though the song’s placement frames it less as a moment of finality than what she later calls “strange serenity.” From then on, she struggles to commit to a single role, and each version of herself, real or imagined, seems inevitably tied to her relationships. In ‘Should’ve Been Me’, the narrator empathizes with a partner who seeks love from someone who looks just like her because she herself is emotionally unreachable – a passive state she then describes in her own internal terms, comparing it to a hand lifting and dropping her inside a labyrinth: “When I saw the girl looked just like me, I thought/ Must be lonely loving someone/ Trying to find their way out of a maze.”

    Whenever Mitski sings of desire on the album, she’s either recognizing someone else’s or begging them to spell it out. It’s why ‘Love Me More’ is at once the most magnetic and conflicted song on the album, full of yearning mirrored – or maybe answered – in the dazzling production, which has the deliberate effect of drowning her out. Even then, it’s a need, not a want – the same way she’s presented the shift to a more ‘80s-inspired sound (“I needed to dance.”) There’s no freedom of choice in such a declaration, not much room for change; only weariness, only more. “I’ll have to learn/ To be somebody else,” she concedes on ‘I Guess’, less an ending than a resignation. She could be singing to anybody when she says, “It’s been you and me/ Since before I was me/ Without you I don’t yet know/ Quite how to live.” But as she trails through Laurel Hell, it’s clear that no one can know or trace the movement of her own feelings like she does. No one can make the same dance. And when that strange calm washes over these mountains, naturally, she holds it.

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