“Let’s go into the dark carefully,” begins Mitski Laurel Hell, announcing his return from a two-year hiatus with a delicate yet ominous tone. Echoing through disembodied choral vocals before bursting into an organ synthesizer dream, “Valentine, Texas” is a fitting introduction to the indie rock artist’s sixth album.
Laurel Hell finds Mitski willingly reentering a Sisyphean struggle to remain engaged with the world. She pours emotional lyrics about the turbulence of the creative process and the agony of unhinged love, all through dramatic chord progressions and 80s dance beats.
The album‘s lead single “Working for the Knife” is the most obvious reflection on the pressures of being an entertainer in the public eye. At the end of his Be the Cowboy tour in 2019, Mitski announced his intention to take an indefinite hiatus from music production, but his contractual obligation with the Dead Oceans label was not yet over.
“I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right, but I just chose the wrong,” she sings, grappling with growing old in the public eye and criticizing the idea that you have to exploit yourself to create good art. The five verses do not vary much in structure or melody, expressing the monotony of toiling under the menacing blade of capitalism – there is no accumulation, no moment of liberation to look forward to.
Likewise, “Love Me More” can be interpreted as an admission of dependence on its audience for happiness, asking them to “love enough to drown it out”. Like most of Mitski’s work, however, the song’s meanings are deliberately multifaceted; maybe she is looking for a romantic partner to fill the feeling of emptiness. She strings together the chorus as her calls get louder, and the circular chord progressions create the illusion of a downward spiral.
But in “Heat Lightning”, she gives up: “And I can’t do nothing / I can’t change much.” With a soft accent reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, she sings of insomnia and the power dynamics of an unbalanced partnership. Its eerie nature imagery amplifies the song’s unsettling, dreamlike quality – it describes an eyelid in the sky and compares trees to sea anemones. “Stay Soft” is equally surreal and vaguely erotic, using double meanings to explore vulnerability, numbness and sadomasochistic tendencies in relationships.
While it might seem like a peculiar choice next to such emotional themes, Mitski lacquers the entire album with a glistening sheen of ’80s synth-pop. The opening seconds of “The Only Heartbreaker” could be mistaken for a tune from A -ha, and the funky “Should’ve Been Me” sounds like Kate Bush strolling through a meadow. The upbeat melodies balance out the heavy lyrics and sometimes even add an element of quirky comedy. In the music videos for “Working for the Knife” and “Love Me More,” Mitski dances erratically to the beat, mimicking moves like pulling a cigarette as if she were a deranged puppet from an ’80s TV show.
With just 11 short tracks, the album is just over half an hour in total, but each note is crafted with such deliberation that it still manages to take listeners on an emotional journey – although fans may still wanting more meandering musical digressions. which shaped much of his previous work. The penultimate track “I Guess” seems like a definitive resignation from the music, but when it’s followed by the cheerful and oddly upbeat honking “That’s Our Lamp,” it doesn’t feel like a goodbye.
Mitski revealed in November that the album’s name refers to the poisonous brambles of laurel bushes that grow in the Appalachian Mountains, trapping unaware passers-by. “When you’re stuck in these thickets, you can’t get out. Or so the story goes,” she said. Her struggle to escape the laurels hell of love, work, and life itself turns out to be a haunting dance through a magnificent maze.
Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].