Mitski's 'The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We' Is Her Loneliest Record Yet
Published Sep 11, 2023For a time, Mitski seemed over it. In recent years, the artist — once deemed by Iggy Pop to be "the most advanced American songwriter [he knows]" — was in a semi-public battle with her own fame, an uncomfortable tension with a fandom prone to aggressive fits of entitlement and an industry that has long prized product over person. The album borne of this period — 2022's glittering sleepwalker Laurel Hell — was Mitski's most lush and pop-minded record to date, though there was a strange hollow in its heart. Theories that Mitski released the album as a way to fulfill her record contract and finally disappear from public life seemed possible, even likely.
But Mitski Miyawaki didn't disappear. Luckily for us, she decided the juice was still worth the squeeze, and we have The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, a phoenix-from-the-ashes return, a ghost story, a country record. It's Mitski's first album recorded with a full band. It's also her loneliest.
In press materials for The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, Mitski called it "[her] most American record." But this isn't a treatise on our southern neighbours' noxious political battlefield or collective structural woes; there are no grand statements or calls to arms. Instead, it's a record about the vastness and depth of American isolation.
In the weeks leading up to The Land Is Inhospitable's release, Mitski put on a series of "double features," album listening parties that included screenings of films selected by the artist. Of the works presented — including Fellini's La Strada, Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and Donna Deitch's joyful lesbian road drama Desert Hearts — it's Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven that perhaps best captures the record's heart-swallowing enormity.
Malick's deific vision of Alberta's liquid wheatfields and punishingly vast skies (standing in for the Lone Star State) feels apiece with the quicksilver world that Mitski builds on The Land Is Inhospitable, a magic-hour unreality that deals with very real pains. As if singing both from within the gothic house of Malick's unnamed farmer and the fields that surround it, Mitski haunts the record in a strange sublimation of self, scattering her psyche across the grounds. She's alone at the kitchen table; in the walls and under the porch; she's the willow tree and the creek; her heart beats in the moon that hangs overhead. She's everything, and therefore she's alone — as she sings on "The Frost," "It looks / Like we've been left in the attic / But you're not here to see / It's just witness-less me."
Mitski is alone even on the record's most cleanly romantic songs, possessed by love's remnants rather than its hot-blooded immediacy. The sweeping "Heaven" finds her sipping a lover's leftover coffee, tasting "a kiss left of you," while the patiently ascendant "Star" searches the sky for a faded love's cold glow; "We just see it shining / It's traveled very far…So you can keep looking up / Isn't that worth holding on?" she sings as a flurry of MIDI organ sweeps her into the night. In Mitski's world, love is something that exists independently of its lonely host; a spectre that guides her through the halls and forests, a path-illuminating force, a faraway giant.
The record can be as self-lacerating as any of Mitski's past works — the skin-tingling bar room swing of "I Don't Like My Mind," with its frenetic binging and sorry purging, is an early gut punch — but it holds a steady, wisened resolve at its core, an acceptance of solitude and ache that sets it apart from the rest of her catalogue. On stormy centrepiece "The Deal" — which moves in three keening suites before climaxing in a stampede of erratic drums — the night is a silent idol, one that extracts Mitski's pain in the form of a small bird. The titular deal has been made, but Mitski, much like Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid, realizes too late what she's truly lost in the exchange; "You're a cage without me," the little bird gently taunts. "Your pain is eased / But you'll never be free / For now I'm taken / The night has me."
With that song's cautionary fantasy ringing through the dark, the surrounding tracks find Mitski attempting to hold her solitary pain in equal measure to hope; to achieve a life even as heartache's wings beat in her chest. The dusky lounge of "My Love Mine All Mine" is a plea to the moon that Mitski's love be taken to space to shine down long after she's gone. It's both heartbreaking and hopeful, the kind of careful balance that Mitski has fine tuned in the decade since her debut.
The steadily stomping "Buffalo Replaced" — driven by longtime co-conspirator Patrick Hyland's open-tuned guitar and scattered clusters of keyboard — personifies this hope as a sort of lost girl, a companion to Puberty 2's lothario Happy: "I have a hope / And though she's blind with no name / She shits where she's supposed to / Feeds herself while I'm away." Hope can be just as agonizing as heartache, but much like the pain bird of "The Deal," Mitski knows that she's better off living with the risk: "Sometimes I think it would be easier without her / But I know nothing can hurt me when I see her sleeping face."
That ember of hope is briefly suffocated by the stunning "I'm Your Man," a dusky folk dirge that confronts its author's cold manipulations, her deep fear of being discovered for what she is. It's of a piece with "I Don't Like My Mind," a flamethrower that Mitski turns against herself in relapse from the hard-won grace that she wrestles with elsewhere on the record: "I'm sorry I'm the one you love / No one will ever love me like you again / So when you leave me I should die / I deserve it, don't I." The song could sound needlessly maudlin were it not for the understated intensity of its arrangement; a strummed acoustic guitar and rolling drumbeat eventually giving way to a gorgeous game of choral leap-frog, a host of spirits chiming in from the reeds. And then, adding to a long and storied sonic lineage, here come the hounds of love — Mitski is pursued through the woods by a pack of barking dogs, snapping at her heels and chasing her deeper into the solitary night.
Eventually though, she finds her way home. Closer "I Love Me After You" finds Mitski cleaning herself up after the chase, splashing water on her neck and laughing in the mirror, confidently surveying her kingdom of nothing. "Stride through the house naked / Don't even care that the Curtains are open / Let the darkness see me," she sings atop a blurry shoegaze march; a rebuff to the supposed tragedy of her solitude, to the inky maw of fame, to the always encroaching dark. "I'm king of all the land," she sings, alone as ever. But like hope and happiness and pain, that loneliness takes physical form — now, she wields it like a flaming sword. (Dead Oceans)