Review: Laurel Hell by Mitski
“the headlight spirits they lead me down to styx so black it shines” - mitski
Music is different from other art in that I don’t think you can accurately assess your feelings on it after one listen. When people online say “I wish I could listen to this album for the first time again” I have no clue what they mean, because I get so much more out of music the more I’ve listened to it. Melodies become familiar to you, words become familiar to you, songs become ideas that you work through you own personal life with. Fresh music is unfamiliar and takes time to get a hold on.
Pitchfork releases their album reviews the day an album comes out. I get it, they’re a business, and people want to read something about the new art they’re consuming to guide their thoughts on it, but I’m not a business so I’ll take things slower. Today Mitski released a new album, and I’m going to review her prior album. I have no idea what I think about The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We (2023) yet, but I had no idea what I thought about Laurel Hell (2022) the day it released either.
Part of the reason new Mitski is difficult for me to assess but I’m willing to be patient is because Mitski means a lot to me. Mitski was the defining artist of my 2019 transition from college world into “the real world”, and her songs about finding dignity in sadness were powerful art-as-guide for me. I wrote about my personal experience with Mitski in an earlier Substack piece, “Is Mitski Really Not a Sad Girl?” so I won’t restate it all here.
In that earlier Substack piece I broke Mitski’s career into two eras. The first is Lush and Retired From Sad New Career in Business and Bury Me At Makeout Creek, where Mitski made autofictional music about her own emotions and life events. That’s followed by Puberty 2 and Be The Cowboy, a second era where Mitski takes more emotional distance from her songs but writes stronger songs. The result of the additional distance is that Puberty 2 and Be The Cowboy are sprawling albums full of great individual songs, but lacking a thematic core. The first albums had a thematic core because Mitski was so raw about her life, so her central concerns became the core. Laurel Hell and its just-released sequel The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We feel like a third era, where Mitski is making thematically cogent albums again, but with the additional artistic distance she took in Puberty 2 and Be The Cowboy.
Maybe it’s just because I didn’t burn the songs into my brain like I did when I was younger, but I don’t think the melodies on Laurel Hell are as strong as earlier Mitski. But in my opinion it’s the best Mitski album to listen to end-to-end. In Laurel Hell Mitski is possessed with a confidence in the ideas of her earlier albums, the confidence mixing with the album’s eerie blackness in a way that evokes some of my favorite Mitski songs “Carry Me Out” and “Cop Car”.
The opening track “Valentine, Texas” does a lot for Laurel Hell. Mitski’s spooky one-word-at-a-time delivery of “let’s step carefully into the dark” sets the stage the for album, and then the second verse where she says “let’s drive out to where dust devils are made” feels like she’s inviting you into the dark world with her and isn’t quite sure where she’ll take you. The second track and opening single “Working for The Knife” is a 4HL anthem, about the tragedy of working a job when you want to be a human and making art. It’s a bit over-the-top but it works in the same vein as her song “Nobody” where it’s such a deeply relatable human emotion that it’s fun to hear Mitski being over the top about it, especially because it has the strongest melody on the album.
There still are some songs that feel like Be The Cowboy that form the meat of Laurel Hell. “Stay Soft”, “The Only Heartbreaker” “Love Me More” and “Should’ve Been Me” are synthpop songs where Mitski dissects different types of imbalance in a relationship. Interspersed with those are bare and eerie Mitski songs. In “Everyone”, she sings about going a different way than what society asks, closing with the line “sometimes I think I am free until I find I’m back in line again.” In “Heat Lightning” Mitski sings about being awake in the middle of the night during an approaching storm, channeling the lightning that powerfully crosses her face in the album’s cover.
“There’s Nothing Left For You” and “I Guess” are songs that straddle the two types of song on Laurel Hell, partially bare and eerie Mitski songs about emptiness and solitude, partially about relationship imbalance. They also can be read as songs about Mitski’s malaise at having to make more music, hinting at the potential end of her career. I think those readings are boring and too autobiographical, but it’s definitely there, especially on “I Guess” positioned as the penultimate track of the album. “I Guess” is a song about endings, literally saying “I guess this is the end”, where Mitski muses about what will happen next after this moment.
Laurel Hell’s final track “That’s Our Lamp” is my favorite song on the album. I think of it whenever I leave my apartment to go for a walk and see a light I left on inside. It’s a very simple song, about a relationship falling apart. One person in the relationship goes outside for a walk to let out their emotions, and when she does she sees the lamp inside their apartment still on, and remembers that lamp is lighting up the place where they fell in love. Though the subject is sad, it’s the brightest produced song on the album, violin synths soaring through the chorus in major key. I think it’s major key, I haven’t played an instrument since high school so don’t be mean to me if it isn’t. Mitski calls it “our lamp”, because it was the moment between the two of them. Even if the two of them may be ending, they had time together with this lamp and that’s special. It feels like the song that plays as the credits of Laurel Hell roll.
Laurel Hell feels like a quiet corner of Mitski’s career that contains its entirety. It has a cogent narrative, about dignity in solitude, about embracing the parts of yourself that you may not be able to show the world. And of course about the end of relationships making you sad. The central symbols of the album, lightning in the night, the open fields of Texas, a lonely lamp in a window, are all evocative. I listen to this album when I drive across the former prairie on weekends and it always reminds me to sit up a little more straight in my seat. But I listen to Laurel Hell when I’m specifically looking for those feelings, not compulsively like I do music I really love. I think it’s good, but I also may be growing away from Mitski a bit.
My initial sense is that The Land is Inhospitable And So Are We is even more eerie and bare Mitski, and more Mitski trying to make a coherent album. Maybe she’s doing some different things than she’s done in the past, or maybe I just don’t understand them yet. You can know what I think in a year.
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