Although Mitski has been labeled one of the faces of the Mount Rushmore of “sad girl indie,” her music stands on a mountain all her own. Unlike many of her contemporaries (Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy), her lyrics are more abstract than confessional and her current musical style is more rooted in art pop than folk rock. Mitski’s speciality is viscerality, sprawling emotion splayed across a complex musical palette, her lightning-in-a-bottle approach universally lauded by fans and critics. But while Mitski the musician has cemented her place as one of the most notable artists of the decade, Mitski the person has detached herself almost completely from public life, preferring her art to speak for her.
However, on Laurel Hell, Mitski feels the pressure of her existing body of work and questions her place in the musical landscape, her role as an artist, and the fraught relationship between her personhood and her craft. The result is an album that feels sonically expansive but conceptually tempered. Largely inspired by 80s synth-pop, Laurel Hell sounds as mainstream as Mitski ever has as she unpacks the ebb and flow of the creative experience with remarkable nuance. Laurel Hell depicts the eternal cycle of questioning and resignation, of chaos and quiet, the parallel experience of the artist and the human being. Although it makes no attempt to give answers, it animates heavy emotions with the wild marriage between pop tradition and Mitski’s unconventional musicality.
The opening track “Valentine, Texas” establishes the setting of this story (in both the exterior and interior world), and lead single “Working for the Knife” straightforwardly establishes the plot. “Working for the Knife,” and by extension Laurel Hell, is about the melancholy of creating art in a marketplace and the prison of becoming aware of your own artistic vision. The songs that follow dissect the specific emotional experiences that accompany this curse.
“The Only Heartbreaker” (the only song with a co-writer, Dan Wilson, in her discography) finds a sort of power in being flawed; Mitski may be more comfortable as the arbiter of chaos than the victim of it. The equally anthemic “Love Me More” sees Mitski desperately pining for love and relief as she questions “How do other people live/I wonder how they keep it up/When today is finally done/There’s another day to come.”
The musical tone grows more muted with “Everyone,” a reflection on the consequences of contrarianism on an doggedly insistent synth beat. “Heat Lightning” is a sonic rendering of insomnia, the spacey peace that comes with surrendering yourself to the waking world. It contains one her most traditional and memorable pop melodies, and even contains some R&B inspired moments within the vocals and production.
It’s ironic that given the album’s fraught lyrical relationship to fame and expectation (and the amount of time Mitski spent crafting the album), the 80s synth pop sound feels like a tired backdrop after a slew of current releases that experiment with that style (Future Nostalgia, After Hours and Dawn FM are the most titanic). However, Mitski’s interpretation is imbued with her distinctive musicianship. Unexpected chord progressions, dissonant vocals and pulsing percussion enrich the butter and glitter of the synths. She also plays with some of the more aged sounds of the era that other artists have been resistant to touch.
“Should’ve Been Me” is a Wham!-inspired track that sounds disarmingly upbeat, and “That’s Our Lamp” opens with a synth hook plucked straight from Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Whether or not these production choices are entirely successful is up for debate, but in the company of immaculate synth pop anthems “Love Me More” and “The Only Heartbreaker”, it’s undeniable that Laurel Hell is one of the most vibrant and adventurous iterations of the 1980s-in-the-2020s trend.
The final two tracks do their best to usher in a sense of closure, but in true Mitski fashion, complicate any straightforward sense of finality. “I Guess” is a sparse reflection on the dissolution of a partnership (“It’s been you and me/since before I was me”). Meditative and mourning, she ends with a simple “thank you.” “That’s Our Lamp” paints a portrait of a fight with a partner and sees Mitski unsure of whether or not to accept or reject reality, whether or not to stay tethered to the past or walk away from their shared lamp into uncertain darkness. It’s remarkable that in this two-verse song, she manages to evoke every stage of grief. Moments like this are when Laurel Hell is at its most moving and impressive; Mitski proves herself to be a master in the art of feeling, summoning echoes of truly complex emotions with a limited set of images.
She has a history of producing short albums (each under thirty-five minutes), but Laurel Hell feels particularly quick, even though this is the longest period of time Mitski has ever spent on a single project. What’s missing from this body of work is the cutting emotionality Mitski has become known for. Rather than painting with the boldest colors in her arsenal, she creates meaning here in the relationship between lyrical nuance and musical certainty. But sometimes, especially in pop music, that balance is the most effective way to connect art to raw feeling. Laurel Hell is, with a doubt, an excellent pop album. Whether or not it ranks among Mitski’s best pieces of work is another matter entirely. The challenge for the listener is whether or not to adopt the ethos of the album and free Mitski from the looming shadows of her past work and allow her to step fully into the light.
Laurel Hell is out now.