Album review: Mitski embraces darkness in ‘80s-inspired ‘Laurel Hell’
Released Friday, Mitski’s sixth studio album takes the form of ’80s-infused “Laurel Hell.” (Courtesy of Dead Oceans)
By Zinnia Finn
Feb. 4, 2022 5:22 p.m.
This post was updated Feb. 7 at 1:11 a.m.
Following a retreat from the spotlight, Mitski is not afraid of the dark.
Nearly three years after she announced an indefinite break from touring, the singer released her sixth studio album “Laurel Hell,” is an amalgamation of shadowy ideas ripened over her hiatus. With prior work slated under genres of rock and punk, Mitski’s newer tracks mark a deviation from those niches with pop and disco-inspired songs that tug toward the ’80s despite themes of conflict and isolation. And though the production is more heavy-handed, her deeply personal lyrics make “Laurel Hell” a handwritten note that almost seamlessly nestles uncertain desire within a dramatic new genre.
The album begins with a low and pulsing electronic keyboard as the first lyrics of “Valentine, Texas” are whispered, suggesting, “Let’s step carefully into the dark.” The stripped-down audio is effectively intimate and mirrors Mitski’s uttered promise, “I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met.” With harshly enunciated Ts, Mitski paints a picture of “Wet teeth, shining eyes/ Glimmering by a fire” – a snarled creature, primal and secretive. The background then blossoms, beckoning as if she has grabbed the listener’s hand and pulled them into the album.
This opening track sets the foundation for the rest of “Laurel Hell,” which is a dark tangle of emotions that Mitski’s previous projects never touched. Though it lacks the gripping urgency and reckless abandon of earlier releases such as “Lush” and “Bury Me At Makeout Creek,” the record maintains a similar commitment to exploring the struggle between introspection and identity. With admittances such as “I cry at the start of every movie” in “Working for the Knife,” listeners are invited into a story that takes place inside Mitski’s mind, synthesizers and all.
Perhaps the most intimate track of the album, “Heat Lightning” is a ballad that centers around a lyrically abstract, downtempo plea to relinquish control. Despite a steadily pulsing synth, the song emulates its setting – 4 a.m. – as a brooding bass wraps around the listener like the viscosity of moments just before dawn. In these morning hours, Mitski asks, “Can I give it up to you? Would that be okay?” – a question that feels rhetorical, as if she has already accepted the surrender and is hoping for forgiveness instead of permission.
An abrupt switch leads listeners into “The Only Heartbreaker,” which is a synth-studded dance track that sits squarely in the middle of the album. With production that feels ’80s enough to conjure a DeLorean, the lyrics are contrastingly melancholy but are unfortunately pushed to the back of the mix and buried under heavy synth. The combination is intriguing, but the pop shimmer of the backing ultimately overtakes any carefully constructed message.
Though the following track, “Love Me More,” is similarly upbeat, its lyrics are able to sit center stage and feel characteristically Mitski. Sung like she is peering into a mirror, the auditory minor-to-major resolutions are interwoven with verses that beg for more love and less time. Almost as if yearning to justify this great emotional need with a pseudo-apocalyptic promise, she paints a premise that demands an overwhelming surplus of effort and emotion.
Despite consistent electronic instrumentation, “Laurel Hell” is ultimately incohesive throughout its 11 tracks, ranging from roller-skateable jams to tunes that provoke pensive longing. Though there are points at which this variety teeters on a tipping point – like the sandwiching of “Should’ve Been Me” between two comparatively introspective tracks – stronger moments of variation tinge the album with a human vulnerability. The uncomfortable disconnect of upbeat tempos and downtrodden lyrics initially pushes the listener away, and yet there lingers an insatiable urge to cling on for more.
If the final three songs represent fractured stages of heartbreak, the penultimate “I Guess” captures the moments right after loss. The straightforward lyrics have the haunting aura of a children’s lullaby – a deceptively simple string of words that carry a much deeper meaning. Serenity is delicately captured through the sparse verses, an absent form that feels encased in the song’s dreamy, pushed-back production and offers a resolve of emptiness that verges on ennui.
Chronicling the moments after a fight, “That’s Our Lamp” finishes “Laurel Hell” how it began – in the dark. The track, which marks the beginning of a relationship’s end, leaves Mitski standing outside peering into the room she shares with her lover as it remains illuminated by the glaring light of a singular lamp. As she resolves, “That’s where you loved me,” the song breaks down into an ironically exuberant turmoil of horns and voices, almost as if the guiding hand throughout the album is finally letting go and leaving the listener alone once again.
Nonetheless, a final glimpse shows that the light remains on.