Mitski’s ‘Laurel Hell’: Heartbreak from every point of view
Natalie Allton | Monday, February 28, 2022
Following the release of her 2018 album, “Be the Cowboy,” singer-songwriter Mitski went on an indefinite hiatus. Feeling pressured by her sudden burst of popularity and apparent parasocial status among her fans, she passed control of her social media accounts to her management team and stepped back from stardom. She intended to quit making music entirely but changed her mind in 2020. She owed her record label another album, but she also wanted to create music for herself. Her most recent album, “Laurel Hell,” released earlier this month marks her return to music and touring after more than two years of radio silence.
“Laurel Hell” never tells the same story twice. Mitski both begs for love (“Love Me More”) and paints herself as someone who can no longer give it (“There’s Nothing Left For You”). She allows herself to be cast as the villain by a narrative out of her control (“The Only Heartbreaker”) and, elsewhere, bears the full mantle of guilt and responsibility (“Should’ve Been Me”). The penultimate track, “I Guess,” sees her reach a place of acceptance and acknowledgment towards her own pain and introspection. It’s followed by “That’s Our Lamp,” the most upbeat song on the album, which details the demise of a relationship that hinges on familiarity rather than affection. “Laurel Hell” is filled with dichotomies and paradoxes, layering contradictory viewpoints to weave a rich tapestry of hard-to-express emotion.
Mitski’s lyricism is best approached like sung poetry. As a general rule, she’s likely to be writing about love, fame, loneliness, identity or capitalism — all themes explored in “Laurel Hell.” “Working for the Knife” is about the oppressive weight of consumerism and fame on a creative career. Arguably, so is every other track on the album. Heartbreak is the most surface-level interpretation of her lyrics, but it isn’t the only valid one. Mitski’s relationship to her work, popularity and audience is like a partnership: romantic, dramatic and emotional.
Her discography has been shoved into the “sad girl music” category. While I’ve never once been okay while listening to “Be The Cowboy” or “Bury Me at Makeout Creek” on repeat, it is reductive to claim that “sadness” is the only emotion her music evokes. Mitski makes me see shrimp colors. Her lyrics detail situations and feelings so specific that it sometimes feels like she Xeroxed my brain and made a funky synth beat out of my thoughts. Her voice, soft and intimate, croons about how it “Must be lonely loving someone / Trying to find their way out of a maze,” and in doing so, she rips out my heart and plays jump rope with my aorta. Mitski often writes tragedy but like all great art, there are layers to her text. If you also relate: Enjoy the ride and get well soon.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see her tour in Atlanta on Feb. 19; it was a near-religious experience. Mitski is a performer in every sense of the word. She sang track after track for a straight hour and a half without breaks, pausing only to drink water and once to say she smelled weed. (While she was cool with it, she thought everyone really should be wearing a mask). Her choreography left no room for improvisation: every lithe movement was carefully planned and gracefully executed. Her use of expressions and pantomime created a character and narrative for every song — see, for example, her silent, fully mimed, absolutely heart-wrenching emotional breakdown during “Townie.” It was hard to look away from her. She was ethereal, beautiful and tragic.
“Laurel Hell” lives comfortably in the grey space of life, love, relationships and work. Mitski’s lyrics, complex as ever, speak to emotions that reside within the ugliest parts of ourselves. As a fan, I’m rabid for her work; as a creator, I recognize that she owes us absolutely nothing.
Mitski, from here I can tell you: thank you.
Album: “Laurel Hell”
Label: Dead Oceans
Favorite tracks: “Stay Soft,” “Should’ve Been Me,” “That’s Our Lamp”
If you like: Japanese Breakfast, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5