Mitski is searching for resolution within Laurel Hell

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Recommended Tracks: “Heat Lightning”, “Stay Soft”, “That’s Our Lamp”

 

At times, it can feel like a herculean effort to divest Mitski from the narratives that constantly surround her and her return with the release of Laurel Hell. Her rise to fame has been a mixture of incredibly-deserved critical acclaim (the run of Bury Me at Makeout Creek to Puberty 2 to 2018’s world-conquering Be the Cowboy is truly awe-inspiring, and those albums hold up incredibly well, which can’t be said for many of her contemporaries) and intense, parasocial fandom that led to her hiatus in 2019 and many questions of whether or not she’d ever return to the music industry. Initially, Laurel Hell was going to be a Strokes-ian, label contract-fulfilling album — in an incredible Rolling Stone piece to promote the album, she shared that the album was born after she realized that “I [Mitski] contractually had to release it,” and that she “just didn’t know whether I would ask the label to take it and keep me out of it, or I would actually go out and present it.” That push-pull tension between an artist who’s really incredible at what she does and the desire for a more understated sense of peace is a theme that runs the entire album, and is perhaps summed up by lead single “Working for the Knife” — “I used to think I’d be done by twenty / Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same.” In some respects, Laurel Hell is an incredibly sad album — it’s a tense exploration of Mitski’s own personal wants soundtracked by the most buoyantly pop-forward sounds of her career. 

 

 

Opener “Valentine, Texas” begins the album in the most Mitski-an way possible; beginning with a soft droning synth, she proclaims “Let’s step into the dark / Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around”, and a minute or so in the song explodes into the loud, dynamically cathartic euphoria that made songs like “Geyser” and “Your Best American Girl” so compelling when we first heard them. This Mitski of old is few and far between on Laurel Hell, though. While it might be absurd to characterize it as a pivot to pure pop, Laurel Hell spends most of its runtime building upon the baroque colors that she established on Be the Cowboy, albeit with inspiration from 80s pop that lends to itself to the brightest songs we’ve heard from her. The late single “Love Me More” finds Mitski begging a lover that “I need you to love me more” over a near honest-to-god EDM buildup with saw synths that reaches a giddy, but sad conclusion; it wouldn’t sound out of place on the club floor, almost like the recent takeover of “Nobody” on TikTok. “Stay Soft” begins with a thumping bass line that evolves into yacht-rock jamming on the soft keys with twinkling production quirks behind it as she explores the intersection of vulnerability and sex with remarkable honesty — “It’s why I’ve arrived, your sex god / Here to take you where / You need to go / To where the dark remembers you”.

With this sudden embracing of pop nostalgia, though, comes a whiplash effect with the other half of the record that tends to stick close to lowkey balladry. Some of the time, this lends itself to the best songs on the album — for instance, “Heat Lightning” begins as a near whisper before eventually expanding into a skittering, electronic rumination on heartbreak, and its presence at the middle of the record is a striking example of what Mitski is capable of with regards to setting up the album experience. It’s an utterly disarming track that finds her awake, late at night However, similar efforts like “Everyone” and “I Guess” have a way of bogging down the album, and it’s not because they’re bad songs — they simply feel out of place alongside the other songs that feel as if they’re racing to an end destination. Everything on Laurel Hell points towards some sort of resolution that Mitski is desperate to find, yet she never really seems to find it; in “The Only Heartbreaker”, she’s begging her lover to “make just one mistake” to justify herself not being the bad guy. Upbeat album closer “That’s Our Lamp” is a breakdown of a couple fighting and reuniting over and over again — “We may be ending / I’m standing in the dark / Looking up into our room / Where you’ll be waiting for me” — while bouncing alongside instrumentals that some reviewers have compared to “Dancing Queen”. It’s a masterclass in contradiction, blending the sounds of something incredibly accessible with one of the most fraught scenarios that a relationship can exist within.

 

This constant contradiction and open-endedness leave Laurel Hell in a confounding place when you hold it alongside the rest of her revered catalog. It’s not quite the pop-forward shift that we thought we would get given the popularity of songs like “Nobody” and her general shift away from her past sounds with Be the Cowboy. Instead, it exists somewhere in between a massive step forward for her, but also a form of standing in a place that leaves us asking what’s next. We know what’s coming immediately — she will start a massive theater tour this month that sold out instantly, building off of the intense growth of her fandom, and she’ll be opening for Harry Styles in football stadiums this summer. For an artist who wanted to leave the limelight, she’s diving into it with fearless abandon; time will tell if we see Mitski attain the resolution she seeks throughout Laurel Hell, and in the meantime, we’ll be left swaying along to what feels like the transition point in her stellar discography. Who she becomes next shouldn’t be the question we ask — we’d all be better off to ditch the narrative and just enjoy what we have.

Stream/purchase Laurel Hell here.

Keep up with Mitski: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook

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