Mitski Is Vulnerable and Mysterious in Equal Measure on 'Laurel Hell'

BY Jordan CurriePublished Jan 31, 2022

After Mitski Miyawaki completed touring her acclaimed album Be the Cowboy in 2019, the singer-songwriter went dark. She deactivated her social media and announced an indefinite break from music. "I've been on non-stop tour for over five years," she tweeted. "I haven't had a place to live during this time, & I sense that if I don't step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game, in the constant churn."

The abundance of Mitski in 2018 and 2019, from her live shows to her sardonic Twitter personality, had reached a grinding halt. She assured her devoted audience that she wasn't permanently leaving music and this hiatus was only a break. In reality, she revealed in a 2021 Rolling Stone profile that this promise wavered, and she seriously considered quitting music.

"In order for me to survive in the music industry as it exists, I had to stuff a pillow over my heart and tell it to stop screaming, and be like, 'Shut up, shut up, take it,'" she said in the profile. "After a few years of doing that every single day, my heart really did start to go numb and go silent. And the problem with that is that I actually need my heart—my feelings in order to write music. It was this paradox."

For all the burnout she endured, Mitski channelled it into music, this time setting boundaries from external pressures. The result is her sixth album, Laurel Hell, a record that dresses up the themes of a standard Mitski song — yearning, belonging, fear, love — in flashy attire, all while oozing vulnerability. Continuing the path that Be the Cowboy paved, Laurel Hell is composed of vignette-like songs with the sounds of disco and pop taking centre stage. 

Early singles capture the musician's exhaustive emotions. On "Working for the Knife," she laments about the drain of working life and mourns what could've been. "I used to think I'd be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same," she sings. "Heat Lightning" is about recognizing your limits and succumbing to something greater than you, set to calming lo-fi beats. "The Only Heartbreaker" takes a stark change, an '80s new wave banger akin to A-ha, where Mitski grapples with feeling like she can't pull her weight in a relationship.

Despite the heaviness of the album's early singles, it's the opposite that opens it: "Valentine, Texas" is pure tenderness, beginning hushed and solemn before blossoming with liveliness midway through. Mitski is caught in the throes of new love, moulding herself into what she thinks the other person wants. Wanting to turn into a new person is a prominent motif, likely mirroring the uncertainty she felt contemplating her career. 

Dance tracks recalling retro pop sensibilities and harrowing lyrics are plentiful. "Stay Soft" follows shortly thereafter, serving as a sibling to mega-hit hit "Nobody." "You stay soft, get beaten / Only natural to harden up," she says, providing love to someone who isn't willing to give it back, retreating into a shell caused by past wounds as peppy vocals swerve over disco beats. "Should've Been Me" is the upbeat love child of ABBA and Wham!, where Mitski apologises for not being what her partner needed, while stadium-sized "Love Me More" is the biggest, brightest, most glittery song in Mitski's entire discography, putting her unabashed starvation for affection on full display: "Love enough to drown it out / Drown it out, drown me out", she cries. On the bouncy and groovy closer "That's Our Lamp," she reminisces about a fight with a partner.

But following every sweeping gesture is a moment of stillness. On the haunting "Everyone," Mitski ruminates on the existential loop of life: "Sometimes I think I am free / Until I find I'm back in line again." Monotonous chords drone on for most of the song — until the last few seconds, where stunning piano trills kick in. "There's Nothing Left for You" is a bitter self-release, sombre and airy, disrupted by thrashing cymbals. Mitski lets go of the failed expectations from a lover, but still secretly wishes it was different. "I Guess" serves as a bookend — a resolve to this turmoil. She salutes an ex from the shore as they drift away at sea, and she accepts that she lost a part of herself in this connection, but thanks them in spite of everything. The interweaving of these songs is precise, giving the sense of partying and then going home alone to let whatever you've been repressing come to the surface.

Mitski's lack of presence in the public eye usually gets her branded enigmatic and secretive. Except she isn't, really — not in a musical sense, where her poetry bursts with raw truths and desires. In a radio interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1, she stated that the album's title refers to the laurel bushes that grow in the Southern Appalachians in the US, where they're just as beautiful as they are isolated. She shows us these qualities of beauty and isolation are often two sides of the same coin, and can be married to uncover the intricate corners of a person's full truth.
(Dead Oceans)

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