“I will neglect everything else, including me as a person, just to get to keep making music. And even if it actually sometimes hurts, it doesn’t matter as long as I get to be a musician.” It almost feels as though Mitski’s own words from 2018 predicted her new album, which took three years to produce and follows her announcement of an “indefinite” hiatus from music after the final performance of her Be the Cowboy Tour. Her new album Laurel Hell celebrates the duality between the Japanese-American artist’s revolt against Mitski the cult figure and her undying need to keep singing, writing and dancing.
The opening track ‘Valentine, Texas’ sets the stage for the rest of the album: “Let’s step carefully into the dark”, she sings, accompanied by minimal keyboard chords, before cascading into the second verse, slamming piano keys while evoking images of the American South: Mitski wants to “drive out to where dust devils are made” and “where clouds look like mountains”, hoping that “they’ll finally/Float off of [her]”. This juxtaposition of refuge and chaos characterises the entire album and is presented in its title. ‘Laurel Hell’ is a term from the Southern Appalachians, where laurel bushes grow so thickly that some areas are almost completely impassable. In an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music, Mitski explained: “ I’ve never experienced it myself, but when you get stuck in these thickets, you can’t get out. Or so the story goes. And so there are a lot of Laurel Hells in America, in the South, where they’re named after the people who died within them because they were stuck. And, so the thing is, laurel flowers are so pretty. They just burst into these explosions of just beauty. And, I just, I liked the notion of being stuck inside this explosion of flowers and perhaps even dying within one of them.”
Laurel Hell does not try to replicate any of Mitski’s earlier works, such as the unfiltered despair in ‘Class of 2013’, or the longful yearning in ‘First Love / Late Spring’. The feeling of being at a crossroads brings with it its very own set of emotions. In ‘Working for the Knife’, she regrets how the world seems to have “moved on without [her]”: “I always thought the choice was mine/And I was right, but I just chose wrong.” The track also seems to describe her struggle with the music industry and the vibrating synth sound in the intro is replicated in other songs on the album, such as ‘Everyone’, where the synth transitions into a heartbeat-like pattern, while Mitski sings: “I opened my arms wide to the dark/I said ‘Take it all, whatever you want’”.
‘Love Me More’ presents the listener with the perfect complement to ‘Everyone’, with both offering contradicting responses to Mitski’s struggle in ‘Working for the Knife’. While Mitski returns to the dark in the latter, she chooses a different path in ‘Love Me More’: “I could be a new girl/I will be a new girl”; she pleads for someone to “fill [her] up” and “drown it out/drown [her] out”. The music video to ‘Love Me More’ features a doll, a puppet of a bird drenched in ink and Mitski desperately trying to imitate different images of herself. This, together with the commercial, even upbeat sound of ‘Love Me More’, creates a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere, and it is hard not see a second interpretation of the album’s title here: Mitski really doesn’t want to be famous. And while many artists who’ve risen to some degree of popularity have lamented the dark sides of life as a star, few have managed to pull this off convincingly. Mitski, on the other hand, doesn’t try to convince anyone. The short, often repetitive verses make many songs on Laurel Hell seem so brutally honest that at times you feel as though you’re listening to a monologue that was never intended for you.
While Mitski’s previous albums have offered fairly standard indie rock sound and shone through her talent as a singer and songwriter, it seems she is trying to introduce more meaning into the instrumental parts of her songs this time. Many tracks on the album play with the juxtaposition of flashy synth sounds and traditional piano accompaniment, giving Mitski’s conflict yet another dimension. But here, the album’s production is trying a bit too hard. The 80s-pop synth parts could be more imaginative and ultimately compromise Mitski’s voice and writing for a stylistic element that could have been more compellingly executed in a single song instead of overshadowing the entire album. A notable exception is ‘Heat Lightning’, a ballad-like, metaphor-heavy piece, where Mitski lies awake at night and “feel[s] a storm approaching” and surrenders to the unknown: “There’s nothing I can do/Not much I can change/I give it up to you”.
Has Mitski already chosen, then? She embraces the dark and, in the album’s penultimate song ‘I guess’, it appears she bids farewell: “I guess this is the end/I’ll have to learn to be somebody else”. But after singing “From here, I can say: ‘Thank you’/From here, I can tell you: ‘Thank you’” – the perfect breakup if you want – the album’s final track ‘That’s Our Lamp’ suggests a different direction. Accompanied by bells and trumpets, in a radical instrumental departure from the rest of the album, she “look[s] up into our room/Where you’ll be waiting for me”. The ending is therefore, like the rest of the album, decidedly ambiguous. Will Mitski give the stage another chance? Or is this really her good-bye? Fans have speculated she might choose the path Fiona Apple has chosen: live a life away from the music business, limit her interaction with fans and the press and sporadically release music on her own terms. With Laurel Hell, she has shown us that she isn’t quite ready to let go yet.