Laurel Hell is a somewhat more muted affair than its immediate predecessors, but no less revelatory
Back in 2019, there was a sense that 2018’s Be The Cowboy would not just be the last Mitski album for a while, but the last Mitski album ever.
Despite putting out a “I just need to take a break” front, the singer had every intention of walking away when the Cowboy tour came to a close.
There had been a lot of touring up to that point, with an emotionally charged, precisely choreographed show where it felt like the emotions could burst out wider at any moment. But it wasn’t road burnout.
It had become more of a challenge for Mitski, always an intensely personal writer, to maintain a safe distance from the emotional labor of making that kind of music (with Capital F Feelings) for a growing audience. That labor was amplified when she had a segment of fans who responded to those songs as if they were musical Rohrshach tests designed to reveal their own deepest emotions.
Album: Laurel Hell
Label: Dead Oceans
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Every artist’s songs are out of their hands once they put them out into the world. But when an artist is both very private and introverted offstage, yet very personal and intimate in a relatable way through their art, any volume of passioned response can leave the artist feeling objectified and detached.
Between a growing audience, growing demand for product,the balancing act Mitski needed to keep it going was becoming off-kilter. There’s only so much bloodletting one can do before blood loss becomes a problem. The idea of walking away felt like a more and more reasonable act of self-care by the day.
She told Rolling Stone recently, “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.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.”
Mitski had every intention of walking away, but it didn’t last long. Sure, she did have another album left to deliver on her contract with Dead Oceans Records, but there was no great rush and no requirement to do anything other than deliver a finished album to the label.
But, when you’re a creator and, unlike Henry Rollins, if you feel you still have toothpaste left in the tube, you create. And so Mitski did.
In a few short months after walking away, she was back to writing, working mostly with material she’d been writing since 2018.
And it allowed her to just live a life, away from the grind of the album-tour-album-tour cycle and away from social media — willingly ceding control of her online accounts to her team during the Be The Cowboy tour and not going back. She had time to just relax and living quietly, an existence where watching movies and enjoying cooking at home had their place with the creation. It was also time to reset and recalibrate career boundaries moving forward.
It also took longer than Mitski expected to finish the album, working with longtime producer Patrick Hyland, simply because it took time to settle on the sound of it. She told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 that, at various times, the album was going to be more country, then more punk before she arrived at what she wanted.
And now, Laurel Hell is here — the result of that regrouping and resettling. And where did Mitski arrive?
Hello, 1980s, the kind you’d see Michael Ian Black, Hal Sparks and others speaking about on VH-1 talking head shows 20 years ago. And is that The Weeknd over there, next to the Rubik’s Cube?
No, the Canadian superstar isn’t on the album, but it has its share of the electronic pop of the kind that makes you think she’d be more likely to open for him later this year than Harry Styles.
It isn’t all peppy bounce with those synths, however, as Laurel Hell alternates the dancier with icy backdrops that feel like soundtracks for ’80s crime noir or its progeny. Take away the vocals to “Everyone,” for example, and one can picture 1980 James Caan, wearing 2011 Ryan Gosling’s bomber jacket under the streetlights, pondering his next move before whatever best laid plans are about to turn to gunfire-laden and blood-stained shit.
The lyrics, though, are about a much different foreboding, about chasing a dream that chases back in ways the dreamer didn’t anticipate or want, singing at the end “Sometimes I think I am free/Until I find I’m back in line again.”
Be The Cowboy often filtered the personal through characters in its lyrics. Here, that filter is lifted, as Mitski sings of relationships — with a partner, with what’s required of her art, with everything and everyone.
Start with that album title. Laurels are beautiful plants grown for decoration, but also poisonous and can grow in tangled thickets that can be impossible to get out of. The rural legend is that some folks became trapped in those thickets, unable to escape, with the beauty of the plant killing them in their lines of sight as they passed.
The metaphor for her apparent mindstate circa 2018 is such that one understands why she was drawn to it for a title.
For all the talk of not wanting to make another “sad girl” album, the mood of Laurel Hell is often one of melancholy and resignation, one likely result in a new batch of memes (this is the internet in 2022 and a fanbase craving Mitski’s return, after all).
In addition to her desire to keep creating, Mitski’s decision to keep making music had to do with the realization that shifting careers would mean having to meet some other demands under capitalism, which she sings of in “Working For the Knife,” the lead single and the first song she wrote after the 2018-19 tour.
She sings “I used to think I’d be done by 20, Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same/Though maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change/That I’m living for the knife.”
Bursts of dissonant guitar bob through as she puts across the disappointed resignation in a way that’s all the more resonant in a pandemic world where people have re-evaluated their own careers and how much a particular job isn’t right for them after all.
Mitski creates a contrast both within songs, marrying the peppier ones to sad lyrics and by interspersing slower, more spare atmospheric tracks in between them.
Take album closer “That’s Our Lamp” for an example of the former. It’s a gem, reflecting Mitski’s desire to work more in shades of gray, about looking back at a broken relationship. One can picture it being something ABBA would have mined for hit gold back in the day.
“The Only Heartbreaker” is her first song with a co-writing credit. She went to former Semisonic frontman turned hit pop writer for hire Dan Wilson (whose list of credits include Adele, Taylor Swift, the Chicks and Leon Bridges) to help when she was stuck trying to put it together.
One of the album’s best, it cuts deep, about being responsible for the end of a relationship as well as being pained at being the only one trying to save it.
“Love Me More”, another highlight, immediately follows. Mitski turns her attention to that off-kilter balance and how, as much as she hates what it does, she needs that balance, that push-and-pull, albeit in a healthier spot. Rather than than swim with the sheen, her vocals rise above it. The song is all the better for it.
“Stay Soft” is disco with beguiling hints of darkness and eroticism, about vulnerabilty and control in a sexual relationship, shifting in the second verse into a more subtle nod to self-love than “She Bop.”
“Should’ve Been Me” mines musical territory that would have been Motown pastiche a generation earlier, although the lyrics definitely weren’t. Unlike the album closer, here the mood is more regretful, about wishing she could have been what she needed, if only she could have gotten out of the labyrinth of her own head (something more than a few folks can relate to in a pandemic world).
The low-key “Heat Lightning” starts like it’s going to be influenced by early Velvets before floating in ambiguity and ennui as Mitski sings, “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change/Can I give it up to you? Would that be okay?/There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change/I give it up to you, I surrender.”
Laurel Hell is a somewhat more muted affair than its immediate predecessors– Be The Cowboy (which topped my list of 2018’s albums) and 2016’s Puberty 2. If it suffers in comparison to them, it’s that it doesn’t have as many moments that deliver the seemingly promised takeoff.
Catharsis is a bit more difficult to find with all the atmospherics breaking it up. The short length of the songs keeps the relatively weaker moments from dragging the album down, but occasionally keeps the best ones from soaring like they otherwise could.
That said, even the songs that don’t quite take off, like “Valentine, Texas”, have something that sticks (that “Who will I become tonight?/I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met/Wet teeth, shining eyes/Glimmering by a fire” lyric).
Pitting Laurel Hell against its two predecessors is a steep grading curve for someone as melodic and sharp as Mitski is. It’s palpable that Laurel Hell is the album needed to make if she was going to return.
For that, for its definite highlights that sink into the head and the heart and for its intriguing hints at avenues for her to explore in the future, it’s good to have Mitski back. Here’s hoping she’s able to stay away from those dangerously gnarly thickets.
VIDEO: Mitski “Stay Soft”