Album Review: Mitski – Laurel Hell

[Dead Oceans; 2022]

Mitski has borne her soul with its accompanying desires, rage and despair so many times that you almost feel she is the Final Girl of music: a protagonist who ends many of her songs soaked in the blood and viscera of the truths she’s revealed.

Returning for the next act with a hard glint in her eyes covered by a sheen of tears is her long-anticipated and brilliantly titled album Laurel Hell. Following the almost-vignette style storytelling of Be The Cowboy, Mitski’s new album is more centralised around romantic and professional displacement. Through her typically unflinching songwriting, Mitski explores romance at its most offputting and spiky; existential wonder at her place in the world; and the ultimately acidic yet timeless theme of heartbreak. With its influences of synth-pop, 80s rock and baroque pop, this feels like the lid of an emotional Pandora’s Box sliding open to unleash the pent-up feelings that accumulate when shouldering the weight of our personal burdens alongside the world’s.

The first half of Laurel Hell is an interesting set of ominous, dark tracks which, for all their suggestion of a sun upon the horizon, proves to be nothing but paint upon a backdrop which emits no actual light nor warmth. Opener “Valentine, Texas” situates the listener immediately within an ominous, minimalist synth-scape with Mitski singing “Let’s step carefully into the dark.” There is a sense of anticipation as she contemplates “Who will I be tonight?/Who will I become…?” and it feels like Mitski is on the precipice, hanging above some uncertain void. The song surprises and enthrals expanding into a theatrical panorama of bright synths, strings and piano. However, even as she describes a sun-drenched journey to the mountains, there is still this pervasive sense of wrongness – of romantic naivety and idealism doomed to be destroyed.

Lead single “Working For The Knife” is an unorthodox combination of synth-pop and thrumming guitar which finds Mitski brutally unpacking her perception of being an artist. It is quite unflinching as she laments the prominent heartbreak of her lyrics (“But nobody cared for the stories I had about no good guys”), the deconstruction of being ‘someone special’ (“I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me”) and an existential dread from the years passing by (“I used to think I’d be done by twenty / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same.”) The “knife” in question could stand for anything but its inherent potential to cut and harm cannot go unnoticed. Mitski is appropriately cutthroat in just saying what she feels and although it hurts, there’s a sense of catharsis well worth the listen even if you find yourself relating.

The ironically-titled “Stay Soft” encapsulates the Mitskian charm of portraying love in a lyrically blunt and uncomfortable way. She inserts lyrics such as “Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell” before the sudden interjection of a chord reminiscent of iconic horror film scenes – like when Michael Myers suddenly appears behind Jamie Lee Curtis. The ominous pleading and the extremities of love are both dramatic and fun yet you can’t help but hear the song’s desperate edge (“Tell me what you want / To burn away / Cause I could be your stoker”).

The following “Everyone” is a downright scary track that could sonically accompany the feeling of being stalked by some insidious individual – as if Mitski decided to channel her inner John Carpenter to explore the machinations of relinquishing yourself: “And I left open the door open to the dark / I said ‘come in, come in / Whatever you are,” she sings, before she ominously concluding “But it didn’t want me yet.” Here Mitski is essentially throwing her hands up in surrender to forces beyond her control – forces that are implicitly destructive and soul-destroying. Aside from the final 20 seconds in which beautiful piano chords relieve the tension slightly, this track is an unyielding and bleak entry which feels like an invitation to dive into the abyss of someone’s soul.It’s one of the most notable songs on the album and probably best represents the “Hell” of the title.

The second half of Laurel Hell picks up the pace and feels like Mitski has begun an ascension towards some type of light – at least a comparatively brighter space to where we were before. The incredible track “The Only Heartbreaker” is a depressing yet perky 80s-rock influenced ode to how, in the aftermath of a breakup, there only seems to be one villain and one victim of said heartbreak (“I’ll be the loser in this game / I’ll be the bad guy in the play / I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding / You’ll be by the window only watching.”) It also demonstrates just how fantastic a vocalist Mitski with a soulful, melodic voice that always conveys the appropriate emotion.

This is followed by “Love Me More” which is the album at its most euphoric and catchiest with its glitzy synths and muted drums – a euphoric sound that provides an ironic backdrop to the song’s themes of relationship-based improvement and resolution (“I will be a new girl”). It portrays the voraciousness of love and how people fundamentally crave it to act as a plaster for the wounds of past trauma (“I need you to love me more… / Loud enough to drown me out.”)

The beautiful “There’s Nothing Left Here For You” starts off with minimalist soothing synths and seemingly follows the convention of some kind of 80s pop ballad. It finds her lamenting an empty version of herself (“You had it once before / Not anymore”), perhaps romantically or creatively drained. The imagery she paints of going to “sweetheart store” to “find the new you” with a note to “Give her all the love you saved for it” is both beautiful and painful. However, it isn’t too long before Mitski shatters this with a crescendo of sound and sings “You can touch fire” in an effort to revive that inner spark that has died down. Say what you want about the sadness of breakups, but nothing is quite as shattering as falling out with yourself and your passions which she portrays perfectly.

“Should’ve Been Me” is a wonderful slice of baroque pop with theatrical piano, harpsichord and melodic guitar that finds Mitski witnessing a lost love attempt to find solace in a copy of herself. “I haven’t given you what you need / You wanted me but couldn’t reach me / I’m sorry it should’ve been me,” she sings apologetically. It is a moment of accountability and realisation that echoes the sentiment of “The Only Heartbreaker” – that there really are two contributors to the demise of a relationship.

Album finale “That’s Our Lamp” is a rather beautiful and sonically upbeat track to conclude such an emotional tumult. A sweetly conventional and catchy break-up track, here Mitski details running out of her apartment after a fight and grappling with the inevitability of a crumbling, irreparable relationship. With the repeated refrain of “That’s where you left me”, it seems that the origins for Mitski’s descent into this ‘laurel hell’ stem from this romantic dissolution. The biggest shame is that the song concludes right as you feel comforted in its bitter embrace – not allowing the listener to linger and wonder whether she is in a good place or not.

Lauren Hell is an uncomfortably transparent and vulnerable journey to Mitski’s version of Hell – and an account of trying to gather the strength to climb out of it. While there is definitely a lyrical cohesion, the album does feel like two sonically disparate projects where one is rattled by horror and bleakness and the other is an acceptance of such things that allows one to begin healing… very slowly. It does have its catchy flashes and despairingly contemplative moments in equal measure, but always with an undercurrent that life really does a number on us. Despite Laurel Hell‘s unevenness, Mitski’s persistent vulnerability makes her music inherently beautiful and honest, reminding us all of how primal and painful the experience of being human is.