“Let’s step carefully into the dark/Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around,” says Mitski on album opener “Valentine, Texas” as she invites listeners into the world of her sixth studio album, Laurel Hell. Referring to the ensuing musical journey as “the dark” is an apt metaphor, as Laurel Hell stands as a product of strange and unusual circumstances that neither Mitski nor her fans could have anticipated. Things have changed—materially and emotionally—for Mitski the artist and for Mitski the human being. And Laurel Hell is Mitski’s endeavor in navigating the complicated intersections of identity, work, and newfound fame, all while reckoning with the choices that got her to where she stands now.
For the majority of her 10-year career, Mitski was known as an indie rock darling. Her first three albums—Lush; Retired from Sad, New Career in Business; and Bury Me at Makeout Creek—were lauded by critics and they earned her a tight but loyal niche within indie music spaces. Mitski gained a reputation among critics and fans alike for her visceral lyrics and deeply intimate live performances, something that made her somewhat of a poster child for “twentysomething angst”. Her talent was palpable, and her artistry made her stand out in lieu of major label funding. For an indie artist, Mitski was quickly gaining the staying power of the old classics. But somewhere along the way, something shifted.
In 2019, during the final show for the tour of her critically acclaimed fifth album Be the Cowboy, Mitski announced that she would be taking an indefinite hiatus from performing and creating music. She had full intentions to quit her music career, but by early 2020, she changed her mind again. Her change of heart was partly driven by label obligations and partly her own desires. But in the interim between early 2020 and Laurel Hell’s album announcement, Mitski’s career took an unexpected turn—TikTok. The video-sharing social media app that absorbed the lives of millions during the early pandemic lockdowns created a massive boom in Mitksi’s popularity. TikTok videos using audio from her music saturated the entire platform, and suddenly more ears were listening to this indie rock artist than ever before. In 2019, Mitski’s average monthly listeners on Spotify sat around 3 million. At the time of writing, her average is now nearly 10 million.
These numbers don’t place her among the world’s global pop superstars, but the extra 7 million fans is no small difference for a musician who primarily operates within indie and alternative artistic spaces. And it is within this novel popularity that Mitski has released Laurel Hell—a synthy art pop album with its fair share of New Wave and electro-rock influences.
Compared to her prior five releases, Laurel Hell has more in common with the recent Be the Cowboy than any of her other works, despite somewhat lacking in Cowboy’s penchant for eclecticism. The wailing guitars and abrasive lyrics of Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2 are absent here, which may let down fans who were hoping for a return to her earlier sonic palette. But something that any listener can surely appreciate on this album is Mitski’s knack for poetic lyricism and the expansion of the New Wave-esque sound found throughout tracks of Be the Cowboy.
Album-opener “Valentine, Texas” is a moody, atmospheric track, opening up the world of Laurel Hell and portending what is to come. Caught up in a reverie, Mitski wonders who she is and who she will become throughout her journey (“Who will I be tonight? / Who will I become tonight? / I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met” / Wet teeth, shining eyes / glimmering by a fire”). Plucking piano keys and shimmering synths unfurl as Mitski confesses that she wishes her journey will unburden her of a massive weight — “Let me watch those mountains from underneath / And maybe they’ll finally float off of me”. What is this burden and how does Mitski believe she can liberate herself of it? The answers are unclear at first, but the following 10 tracks help illuminate what’s really going on here.
“Working for the Knife” comes next, and here the electro-rock sound of the album really kicks in. As do the specifics of Mitski’s struggle — artistic labor and her complicated relationship with it. In a past interview, Mitski has stated that “the knife” in this song is intentionally left open for interpretation, but this reviewer feels that “the knife” most aptly refers to the struggle and self-sacrifice required to constantly maintain an output of work. “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things too / But I’m working for the knife,” Mitski croons as discordant electric guitar strings strum. She laments — “I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right, but I just chose wrong”. Possibly alluding to the feelings of apprehension that almost made her quit music forever, Mitski confesses in this track that her “work” can often feel more like a surgical procedure than fulfilling self-expression.
But fraught relationships with labor and artistry are not the only things on Mitski’s mind of late. “Stay Soft” is a groovy slice of 80s synth pop, sounding very much like her previous album’s standout single “Nobody”. Here, Mitski sings about the trouble with being vulnerable and how it can sometimes kick us in the ass in the end — “Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell / You stay soft, get eaten / Only natural to harden up.” While this soft-ness can certainly be alluding to artistic vulnerability, there are hints here that Mitski is also referring to that “sweetheart” she mentioned in the opening track. Mitski’s discography is permeated with a sense of romantic longing and romantic displacement, so it’s no wonder that her sixth album would be exploring these themes as well.
Sonically, the album will return to this sound and these themes on other 80s-synth-inspired tracks like “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More”. These two songs are probably Laurel Hell’s most derivative tracks, with shimmering synths and drum beats straight out of a mid-80s film soundtrack. Lyrically, “The Only Heartbreaker” is also one of the album’s most straightforward — “If you would just make one mistake / What a relief that would be / But I think for as long as we’re together / I’ll be the only heartbreaker” Mitski sings as she realizes that she will have to leave her sweetheart and be “the bad guy” as their relationship dissolves.
“Love Me More” sounds almost identical to “The Only Heartbreaker” — which leaves one to wonder how intentional it is that these two songs are back-to-back on the album’s tracklist. Interestingly though, “Love Me More” lyrically stands out from its sister track by alluding to a love not found in the arms of a lover, but on the stage. Mitski may have considered quitting music forever, but this song reveals how deeply she needs her art for her own survival as she sings lines like “But when I’m done singing this song / I will have to find something else / To do to keep me here / Something else to keep me”. Maybe for the first time, Mitski appears to be realizing that she has a difficult time feeling validated if it isn’t coming from her fans or her work.
“Everyone” is a mid-tempo reprieve, where Mitski once again contemplates how the choices that she’s made have led her to this career and this state of mind. “And I left the door open to the dark / I said ‘come in, come in, whatever you are’ / But it didn’t want me yet”. Despite knowing the risks, she understands that she decided to take her chances anyway, but “the dark” she toyed with didn’t do to her what she expected it to: “I didn’t know what it would take / Sometimes, I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again”. Much like the previous two tracks, it’s clear that Mitski is grappling with the weight of her past decisions, and wondering if she chose correctly.
A personal highlight of the album is “There’s Nothing Left for You”, a reflective, atmospheric rock song where Mitski crystallizes the emotions she’s struggled with throughout Laurel Hell. Immediately following “Love Me More”, “There’s Nothing Left for You” is the come-down after the high of a performance, when the music has stopped and Mitski has to return to her personal life. The “you” she speaks of feels alone, out of place, and unwelcome in their environment. “Nothing waits for you,” she sings, “You had it once before / Not anymore / So go on to that sweetheart’s door / And find a new you”. Is she singing about herself, or her ex-lover? The answer isn’t entirely clear, but the ambiguity feels intentional. The validation-chasing she’s done via her music has put a distance between her and her partner, who both feel abandoned and alone in the end. Mitski sings of fire and flight in a cinematic crescendo of guitars, which jarringly halt to silence as she sings “And then it passed to someone new”.
I won’t go into heavy detail over every track on this album, but I chose tracks that I feel give a proper window view into the overall experience of Laurel Hell. While this isn’t Mitski’s most sonically ambitious project, I can’t deny the satisfaction of hearing how cohesive this album sounds as a whole. For this reviewer, Laurel Hell is the first Mitski album to sound as if it exists in its own pocket universe, like a short film. Lyrically, this album is up to snuff with her previous outputs, proving once more that Mitski is nothing if not a talented songwriter. Are some of the 80s-inspired songs a little bit derivative? Maybe so. But they are enjoyable and they do have enough of Mitski’s unique personality imbued into them to not feel copy-and-pasted from another artist’s catalog.
After her back-and-forth over whether or not to leave the music industry, and her sudden Tik-Tok boom, it’s clear that both have affected the production of Laurel Hell in some way. Mitski still doesn’t seem convinced that music is the best path for her, despite producing an exceptional album along the way. And while Mitski does not seem to revel in her newfound popularity, many of the tracks on her sixth album do reveal how much she contemplates her relationship with her fans and how deeply it affects her self-image. Her previous albums may have been more willing to go weird and be a bit abrasive, but Laurel Hell is still a great package of music from an artist who is trying her best to manage complicated personal and public lives.