Review originally published 01.03.22 on Full Time Aesthetic.
Mitski is back from a three-year long hiatus and her new record, Laurel Hell, has not skipped a single beat. But even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. Because the magic of Mitski is that she creates music which exists by the rules of its own universe. A record centered around how Mitski relates to herself, to lovers, and to her fans, Laurel Hell is a relatable, cinematic, and beautiful body of work. With 11 songs coming in at just over 30 minutes, Laurel Hell is paced well and doesn’t feel rushed even as it packs multiple narratives throughout.
The record opens with “Valentine, Texas,” an emotionally captivating and sweeping track that starts out quietly during the first verse before crescendoing into a louder second half. With Mitski’s signature sound of being both atmospheric and vulnerable, “Valentine, Texas” offers a familiarity to the listener as the record’s opening song. The track’s first lines allude to Mitski’s return as she sings “Let’s step carefully into the dark/Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around/Who will I be tonight/Who will I become tonight/I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met/Wet teeth, shining eyes/Glimmering by a fire.”Upon finding out what kind of place Valentine, Texas is, I imagined myself waltzing alone in the dust-filled town of less than 200, a particular kind of peace that is only afforded to certain people. Perhaps a kind of peace that Mitski herself craves often but has trouble accessing with her rising fame.
Mitski performing in 2018 (photo by Edwina Hay)
In “Working For the Knife,” the record’s first single and second track, she dives deeper into the struggle with wanting to create but feeling constrained by expectations as she starts off by singing “I cry at the start of every movie/I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too/But I’m working for the knife.” Sonically, “Working For the Knife” oscillates with industrial and subtly psychedelic elements with a tinge of sadness that fits well with the track’s lyrical content. The music video features her singing and dancing around by herself in a performing arts center, possibly reflecting on the freedom she’s missing from her earlier days as an artist. At the beginning, she walks in with a cowgirl hat (a likely allusion to her last record, Be the Cowboy) and by the video’s end, she writhes around on a stage floor panting heavily, starting over the cycle of baring parts of her soul to the world.
What Mitski does really well on Laurel Hell is establish a kind of theatrical sonic landscape throughout the record where she is watching herself while inviting the listener in to watch her. This is clearly demonstrated in the third verse of “The Only Heartbreaker” where Mitski proclaims: “So I’ll be the loser in this game/I’ll be the bad guy in the play/I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.”
A deeply sad song about heartbreak, “The Only Heartbreaker” is juxtaposed against a danceable 80’s beat as she sings about herself being the heartbreaker in a relationship. The song’s music video features Mitski dancing in a burning forest, reaching her hands high but unable to get out. Mitski also utilizes this juxtaposition in other songs such as “Love Me More” and “Should’ve Been Me,” offering a contrast in tempo from more solemnly paced songs.
The last song on the album is “That’s Our Lamp,” a track with a funky bass beat about looking at a lamp from outside an apartment where Mitski was once loved. “That’s our lamp/It shines like a big moon/We may be ending/I’m standing in the dark/Looking up into our room/Where you’ll be waiting for me/Thinking that’s where you loved me/That’s where you loved me.” The song preceding it is “I Guess,” which sounds like it very well could be the last song on the album as Mitski ponders a breakup against a contemplative tempo. But it’s important to consider that “That’s Our Lamp” gives closure to the narrative in “I Guess” and offers a more specific location to the aftermath of the breakup as Mitski reflects and mourns the loss of what she had. The more upbeat nature of the song feels like an encore, with the line “that’s where you loved me” repeating eight times throughout the end of the song, bringing the record to a close.
According to a recent interview with Pitchfork, the reason behind Mitski choosing the name Laurel Hell is: ‘Laurel Hell’ is a term from the Southern Appalachians in the U.S., where laurel bushes basically grow in these dense thickets, and they grow really wide… And, I mean, 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.
Mitski performing in 2019 (photos by Edwina Hay)
The cover for Laurel Hell features Mitski in a dramatic pose with her eyes closed and hair splayed out in front of black laurel flower leaves in the corner and white lines drawn into cracks forming on her face. She is wearing a red turtleneck and has red lipstick on, and her hands are positioned artistically as if she’s mid-dance.
With Laurel Hell, Mitski has created a record that is notably poppier than her past releases but still explores the condition of what it means to exist in relation to others and how it feels when those relations become undone. An appropriate follow-up to Be the Cowboy, there are repeated themes of longing and regret that color the record without becoming drawn out. What’s crystal clear is that Mitski can keep finding inventive ways to tell her story with catchy beats and heart-wrenching, memorable lyrics.
Laurel Hell is out now via Dead Oceans and is available on all major streaming platforms. Find Mitski on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.