Album Review: Mitski // Laurel Hell

We see her carefully curated lyricism of despondency and sharp ingenuity with a musicality that is more experimental and emotionally cautious than her more famously depressive works.

We can hear the artist’s lesser noticed 80s inspirations come to the forefront. The layered rhythm sections of synth and electronic beats that were overlooked in tracks like ‘Washing Machine Heart’ are now unignorable in songs such as ‘Love Me More’. We can definitely see a turning point as Mitski seems to continuously mirror and move away from herself musically. Her usual sense of pining is replaced with that of reflection and knowing gaze of an old soul. Obviously, the lyrics are perfected – it’s Mitski. But their new presentation is what’s so gripping.

Opening track, ‘Valentine, Texas’ is certainly one of those in which the lyrics are so interestingly worked into her instrumentation. Mitski opens with the line: ‘Let’s step carefully into the dark’, each word hanging carefully on each step of the synth. It feels as if the songstress is stepping into her own voice with trepidation. There is a fine-tuned sense of dread, paired with a desperate need to venture forward – to speed up and find the destination in ‘the dark’. And we certainly do, as at precisely 1:00, there is an incredible jolting and cacophony of strings. With a Brian Eno-esque movie score, we finally reach where she was treading to. Her songs have a continuous arc made beautifully clear with the final lyric – “Finally float over me”. This style of storytelling is seen all the way through Laurel Hell.

This is especially evident with the creation of atmosphere and novel-like plots in tracks like ‘Working for the Kinfe’ and ‘Everyone’. The former is certainly aptly named – with its wide concoction of industrial sounds, hammer-like beats, and percussions. It is unlike any Mitski to date, slipping into late 20th century, Kate Bush-esque stylings. It is a strangely masculine song, perfectly encapsulating the violence of feeling that the songstresses girlish timbre may not solely be able to reach.

Inversely, ‘Everyone’ is filled with slight techno beats bouncing along gently in the background. The artist retreats to her lyrical motif of leaving, running and abandonment, with pining declarations such as “I think I’ll go that way”. Her indecision is wrapped up in the slow building up of instrumentation, it’s pulling back, and retreats up again. There is a feeling that even the song itself is out of her control as she reflects on ‘some big hand turns out the light’, as strange use of timings drown out her instruments and vocal strength. It is only with the gentle piano building at the end of the song, that we finally gain that sense of security as Mitski accepts ‘the dark’.

My personal favourite of the album, mainly for its rocky textures and layered vocals, is ‘Heat Lightning’. It’s moody and sultry; the percussions follow every beat of the story. Guitar licks are perfectly timed with the most guttural of proclamations. Her realisations and revelations are taken off with uncontrollable surges in music. Mitski’s own sense of self, dragged off by her own song. It’s a stellar example of her unique way of storytelling.

This is not to say her arrangements and pop layering do all the heavy lifting. If there’s one thing Mitski is – it is a lyricist. A witty, confusing, and ironic one at that.

‘The Only Heartbreaker’ could definitely be used to explore Mitski’s interesting poetic stylings. It appears that calling someone “the only heartbreaker” is Mitski’s idea of romance. That giving someone complete control over your entire emotions is a definitive way of showing love. It is certainly dramatic in the way all love songs need to be. Proclaiming herself to “I’ll be the loser again” is somehow happy in its portrayal – being weak is a way of being kept. It’s completely enjoyably but deeply confusing. Something which is very characteristic of the Japanese-American songwriter.

Being weak and being loved appears to be one of the biggest lyrical ideas of Laurel Hell. ‘Love Me More’ is a heart-breaking love ballad, which is ironically not meant to be that heart-breaking. Mitski sings about love as if it were to fill a void, with despondent lyrics such as “when I’m not singing this song I will need to find something else to keep me here”. She argues for the need for more in life, for fulfilment in multiple types of love, as layers to bury the sadness under. Her powerful vocals appear like begging – calling out to some faceless listener to charge in and save her.

I do hypothesise that there is someone Mitski is speaking to with this album, the way she reaches out from the song being too gripping and too personal to just be to us.
‘There’s Nothing Left For You’ is a throbbing, woozy song where Mitski indeed addresses the ‘audience’ – her directly proclaiming that “There’s nothing left for you”. It is true that there is always a risk that you will get psychoanalysed when listening to Mitski however this did feel rather attacking. Listening to this song on a random Friday in your bedroom and being whispered to that that there’s nothing for me in my room, that I should go out outside, but even then that nothing awaits for me, was arguably, overly intense. She punches you from all sides with this song, with the synthy, instrumental explosion that comes out of nowhere, drags you in, then just stops completely and pushes you out. You’re left reeling, feeling like you’ve imagined it, being emotionally torn apart then abandoned. It does the trick, I guess.

In contrast, ‘That’s Our Lamp’ is a rather happy sounding song.

Until of course, you look deeper.

When you realise it is also, actually, insanely depressing.

I don’t know how someone can make the lyric “we fought again; I ran out the apartment” sound so jolly but she does it. Relationship-ending arguments are somehow delightful. Sunny sounding ‘oooo”s and inflections, hide horribly sad lamentations. It is an emotional whirlwind that leaves you questioning what you should feel. You also end up questioning: Whoever thought of pairing a cowbell with heartbreak ballad?

The answer to that would of course be Mitski.

With this final song it appears as if the album has a happy ending. Yet you’re all left with a sense of dread that not everything is how it appears. A perfectly Mitski ending to an otherwise experimental and tentative record.


Mitski’s Laurel Hell is available to stream and download now.

Feature image by Ebru Yilditz 

Author avatar
Maia Gibbs

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