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Mitski - Laurel Hell

May 15th 2022 by Hynek Šnajdr
  mitski laurel hell album original water painting first sectionArt by Hynek Šnajdr

      Mitski is one of the most unique and influential alternative artists of the last decade. Perhaps her unique cultural background and subsequent experiences only reinforced the feeling of otherness, not truly belonging anywhere, which is a prevalent theme in her art. Mitski’s music is raw, honest, and heartbreaking. Her newest album Laurel Hell is no different. She self-released her first two albums back in college, and her third album Bury Me At The Makeout Creek followed soon after graduation. What caught the attention of critics and listeners alike was her storytelling prowess and the ability to convey difficult and complex emotions in a way that seemed effortless. She paired her soft voice with dirty-sounding guitar riffs and other jarring sounds. The song Last Words Of A Shooting Star encapsulates her craft well – a sort of suicide letter from a victim of a plane crash. The details of the act might not have been planned, but the outcome was. That’s just one of the devastating and crushing stories of Mitski’s kaleidoscope.

  mitski laurel hell album original water paintingArt by Hynek Šnajdr

In 2015, she released Puberty 2, an album that caused a lot of ruckus at the time and consequently appeared in many of the Best Album Of The Year lists. It presented a huge hit Your Best American Girl, which built on the idea of trying so hard to be someone you can never be. Sometimes you can try your best and it’s still not going to be enough.

Mitski’s path to stardom peaked after the release of her next album, Be The Cowboy. At this point, her music was in the middle of evolution, leaving most of the grungy, punky sound for bigger melodies and simpler structures. Still miles away from the conventional pop, but easier to digest for the casual listener. Both Nobody and Washing Machine Heart gained huge success and elsewhere the songs were telling stories of longing, despair, and love in all its forms. The subsequent tour took a big toll on the artist, to the point that she announced retirement from music altogether, even though she was technically signed to make one more record.

“ Sometimes you can try your best and it’s still not going to be enough.”
mitski laurel hell album pic
Credit: Genius

Last year, she surprisingly dropped a new single, Working For The Knife. The accompanying video was full of symbolism – starting with bidding a farewell to the previous era, then coming back to the place that gave her purpose, stage, only to experience suffering and metaphorical death. In recent interviews, she said that the process of music-making is a very painful experience for her. The crushing high-demand nature of the music industry was the real reason why she left the scene a few years ago. She thought she’d be happier without it, but found out her life felt empty. Making music is what she is best at, a crucial part of her being, even though it brings her suffering. I feel like this realization got projected onto the new album. There is a sense of giving into something. I wouldn‘t call it hopelessness necessarily, but it feels like accepting the inevitable, whether a part of us or forces outside of our control. After all, only after we accept something, can we truly move on.

 mitski group photo.Credit: Getty Images

Laurel Hell is rich in imagery – the name refers to the laurel bushes so dense that people get lost and die in them. The first song, Valentine, Texas sets the scene like a David Lynch movie. Dust devils and clouds looking like mountains, Mitski paints these evocative images somewhere on the line between dreams and reality. Similar in tone is the enigmatic Heat Lighting, in which the subject cannot fall asleep and instead watches the storm outside. What is the cause of said insomnia? Is it the climatic phenomenon, or some internal unrest? Heat Lighting in this scenario is just a placeholder for anything that might be causing us distress – in the song, there is a tangible feeling of desperation, of not knowing how to deal with such a thing and ultimately giving up trying to fight it.

It’s a theme that runs through the whole record like a red thread. But in the end, Mitski always pushes through and gets back up on her feet. After all, that‘s what she has done by releasing the album.

Melancholy predominates in most of the songs, but quite a few of them don’t feel sad at all until you pay closer attention to the lyrics. Mitski has said that if both the lyrics and music are sad, it is overwhelming and the listener’s attention lessens. To counter that, she deployed sounds that are big, joyous, and ecstatic almost. It works very well – Mitski is likely well aware that without this, the listening experience would be vastly different. As mentioned before, the re-occurring themes of desperation and resignation would be very overbearing and draining without any sort of lightness. This way, the songs like The Only Heartbreaker, Love Me More, Should Have Been Me, and That’s Our Lamp work like little beacons of light, stepping stones, or checkpoints in the mass of the record.

 mitski nature and skyCredit: Getty Images

Heat Lighting is just as fascinating musically, with rich instrumentals that shift and switch almost organically – it starts simple enough, with a slightly ominous-sounding synth, which gets soon backed up by an electronic beat and barely noticeable male vocals that add depth. Midway through, Mitski stops her singing and a myriad of layering instruments kick in a beautiful harmonic part. After the second verse, we expect something similar, or even grander to happen, just like the static energy from the storm builds up, but instead, the song is cut short and it fades out suddenly. It is a reflection of the whole theme – giving up, giving in, being disappointed, and in the end, accepting all of it. It would be almost funny if it wasn’t Mitski.

What I find even more valuable, or at least just as interesting as the other aspects of the record, is Mitski’s unique perspective and a certain wisdom that's not too prevalent on the music scene. Her commentary reveals how deeply she thinks about things, similar to the likes of st. Vincent. Watching her interviews gave me an extra appreciation for her music and some additional insight into it as well. The majority of Mitski’s music seems to be about either love or heartbreak, but according to her, it’s oftentimes not the case, and it is just a metaphor for something else, like her relationship with music, for example. That puts her music into a new light, and it also makes her themes much more wide and double-faced. As love is probably the most prevalent and easy to understand and relate to emotion, it works well as a symbol in Mitski’s songs. In Your Best American Girl, it's more about one’s place in society and not fitting in than not being enough for a specific partner. Just the same, Geyser is about music as her well of inspiration. Should Have Been Me takes the classic trope of being cheated on and gives it a little spin. In this case, instead of being angry, the victim is understanding. There is no hate or bitterness in the song – just this deep wish that they were the desirable ones, and that the other person wouldn‘t need anyone else to be truly satisfied. Isn’t that what we all crave, after all?

The other song raising an interesting question is The Only Heartbreaker. In many relationships, there seems to be an imbalance present, one person always gives more than the other. Mitski paints the picture of someone who constantly messes up and asks for forgiveness, wishing that the other person would make a mistake too, which might bring them closer together or cause them to not feel so bad about it. Mitski wonders though, what if the reason that we mess up is that we are the only ones really trying? And she might be onto something – it’s always easier to keep a good face if there is nothing at stake for us. Being caring and passionate inevitably results in mistakes.

Working For The Knife is the musical representation of total burnout – overworking yourself to the point of total exhaustion when one doesn’t have the mental capacity to care anymore. Working just to get by, possibly doing a job that you hate. It‘s about looking at your own life, thinking this is not where you thought you’d be by now, maybe at this point you are starting to lose hope you will ever get there at all. The line „I always thought the choice was mine/And I was right, I just chose wrong“ says a lot about how people in their mid and late twenties experience the world right now. The endless number of possibilities may seem like a blessing at first, but it can also be a curse, leaving one petrified or overwhelmed.

All of the songs have something interesting to offer – in Stay Soft Mitski comes to terms with the fact that vulnerability and kindness will always result in getting hurt – but also that it‘s the only way to live. Love Me More does a great job portraying the desperate need for being loved, or not having what we need in general. The fast-paced melody matches that perfectly, it feels manic and has the intensity of a wave that’s been building up for too long, and is about to break at any moment.

The true highlight is the closer That’s Our Lamp. It feels incredibly lively – Mitski described it as going to see a parade or carnival, perhaps meeting there an old love one last time. There is no more hurt, as time washed it all away. The lyrics feel more than a little sad – but the overall feeling is so optimistic, unlike anything Mitski put out so far. It’s beautiful.

At this point, any record Mitski creates is a guarantee of extreme talent, skill, and uniqueness. Laurel Hell is the same. Incredibly personal, mysterious, and intriguing. Some albums you just listen to for the first time, and they make you go „Wow. This is really something.“ You may not completely understand all the intricacies yet, but the impression is unmistakenly strong.

Overall, I rate Mitski‘s "Laurel Hell“ album as follows:

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