Mitski Returns From a Hiatus With the Midtempo Melancholy of ‘Laurel Hell’: Album Review

Mitski Miyawaki’s rise through the indie rock ranks is the stuff of envy, even if she herself seems to be of two minds as to whether it should be. The 31-year-old’s most recent albums, 2016’s “Puberty 2” and 2018’s “Be the Cowboy,” earned spots on countless best-of lists, millions of streams, and TikTok meme-ification, thanks to an enthralling ability to locate unexpected wild emotions in gentle moments and deliver them in poetic yet memorable hooks. At times that adoration has felt like it has turned Mitski into an ice sculpture: her immaculately carved art deserving the gawking, while she herself becomes more idea than human, something mystic and susceptible to melt away if you get too close.

After years of endless touring building up to that point, it was clear that the soul-scathing work required to produce that art had taken its toll. At the conclusion of the Be the Cowboy tour in 2019, the Nashville-based musician announced that she’d be stepping away indefinitely, some reading the announcement as a straight retirement. But just over two years later, Mitski returns with her sixth album, “Laurel Hell,” a record that brims with the bloody footprints of putting one creative foot in front of the other. It would seem that there’s a dash of pleasure or comfort mixed in the pain as well.

In recent interviews, Mitski admitted that she wasn’t sure she’d ever return, and that “Laurel Hell” was in part prompted by her record label, Dead Oceans, reminding her that her contract called for one more record. But to reduce this album to obligation would be a disservice; some people hate flossing and avoid it at all costs until they’re reminded by their dentist that they have to do it, but that doesn’t negate the good feeling that comes with clean teeth. As such, “Laurel Hell” lives in a cold neon synth-pop fog where references to knives, drowning and fire abound. And though the monumental journey and confident grandeur Mitski fans crave may not always be visible, the darkness here is delivered not with gritted teeth but with the contented sighs of a life dedicated to the loving self-destruction of art.

Lead single “Working for the Knife” lays that conflict bare over a thrumming sway, Mitski working, living, and dying by the titular tool. “I cry at the start of every movie, I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things too,” she begins — an all too familiar feeling amongst those entering their 30s — adding later that she thought she’d be “done by 20” but still finds herself creating. That ability to both capture massive feelings and immediately identify their roots is a familiar tool in Mitski’s kit. “I start the day lying then end with the truth / That I’m dying for the knife,” she sings, the sharp implement of creation carving pieces of herself for public consumption.

The album opens on “Valentine, Texas” with an invitation to step into the dark. Named after a real town with a population of 134, the track spirals in a dust devil of isolation and identity. “Who will I be tonight? / Who will I become tonight?” she wonders coldly, her voice arched over a rounded synth patch. As that synth spreads into anthemic grandeur with ghostly honky-tonk piano and empty-set percussion, Mitski finds herself content to float into the distance rather than match the music’s new heights.

Mitski expertly fuses poetic narratives. Each song could be read as detailing a broken relationship, or offering a statement of a conflicted artist trained on introspection suddenly acutely unsure of what their appeal is. The ‘80s bounce of “Should’ve Been Me” carries its own insecurities: “Must be lonely loving someone / Trying to find their way out of a maze.” The loping synth drone of “I Guess” is the haunting epitome of that duality. “It’s been you and me / Since before I was me / Without you I don’t yet know / Quite how to live,” she sings over the ethereal wash. At face value, the song feels like a shock of serenity after a breakup, but had Mitski placed it at the end of an album released not long after an announcement of indefinite hiatus, it’d be easy to read it as a farewell.

If there’s a caveat to be had with “Laurel Hell,” it’s that too often Mitski feels resigned to sit in that pocket rather than reach for the sky. While she and longtime producer/collaborator Patrick Hyland add and subtract flourishes from the instrumental palette, the vocal tone rarely alters. Mitski’s determined and cool delivery matches the message, as the album deals so heavily with a struggle to connect — with a loved one, with an audience, with one’s self— but that thematic cohesion results in a lack of explosive moments. The burnished “Stay Soft” ratchets the drama on funk bass, but even here Mitski delivers the majority of the lines in stretched syllables (even when singing about self-pleasure) the same way she does on the following tune, “Everyone,” which runs the tempo down only ever-so-slightly but carves out far more room.

In that way, Mitski creates a musical liminal space where every ballad has a bit of shimmer and every dance tune brims with tears, and blue-gray tones daub throughout both sides. There’s something big at the horizon, but Mitski displays perfectly how life isn’t quite so simple as to pull easy lessons forward, either personally or professionally. “Sometimes I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again,” Mitski sings on “Everyone.” And as the album closes with “That’s Our Lamp,” the lyrics continue to center on an ending, even if the almost ironically bright disco instrumental finds her still uncertain of what will happen next.

With 11 tracks, only two extending past three and a half minutes, “Laurel Hell” is a slim volume, one that relies on a roiling smear of electronic soundscape, thematically centers on uncertainty, and leaves lingering questions that strike to the core of what it means to be an artist — or a listener. Watching the arc of Mitski’s career, you might expect bombast, but “Laurel Hell” instead highlights the singular insistence of self that made Mitski into the hero she became, even if it comes in the form of honest mid-tempo melancholy.

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