By Marianna Kaimakliotis
Indie darling Mitski has returned from a petite musical hiatus, after declaring in Summer 2019 that she would be taking a break from music. The pressure of her growing success was weighing on her, and now, back with new music, Mitski has begun to examine how her new success has affected her more. She revealed in a BBC interview, "I got really scared because I could see myself caving in and being swept away by that current, and putting out music that I don't really care about.”
Mitski's sixth album Laurel Hell is named after the areas in the Southern Appalachian mountains where laurel floral bushes pop up in dense growths, producing a thicket that is difficult to escape once entangled. This entanglement is a central theme in Laurel Hell, not incidentally. Mitski rose to prominence by writing songs that examine feelings we often are ashamed to confront; feelings of codependence, self-sacrifice, and passivity. On Laurel Hell, it feels as though we are taking a step back, or an elevation of sight, where Mitski is looking at her previous decisions and behaviors as a spectator and is ready to learn and hopefully move forward - or at least, acknowledge that she’s stuck.
Laurel Hell begins with “Valentine, Texas,” where Mitski sings over a slow beat (reminiscent of Be the Cowboy’s “Two Slow Dancers”), “Let’s step carefully into the dark/ Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around/ Who will I be tonight/ Who will I become tonight.” Then, the music breaks and grows, with warm synth pads and echoing drums. We begin in darkness, in self analysis and somber familiarity, but in that first song, we are already teased with growth. Thus, Mitski comes to us at the beginning already setting up the albums’ recurring themes of performance, repetitive thought patterns, and the breaking of bad habits. The song ends with “Let me watch those mountains from underneath/ And maybe they’ll finally Float off of me" — a hope that maybe things will get better.
Four of the eleven songs in the album explicitly explore a motif of the dark: moving in the dark, leaving the dark, standing still inside it. Mitski has stated in the past that many of her songs are not necessarily love songs but songs about her relationship with music. It’s a tumultuous, codependent one, as seen on Be The Cowboy’s “Geyser," and seen now woven into “Working for the Knife" and “Everyone.” The dark is as encompassing as the laurel thickets, it is keeping her still, and it’s a cycle of repetitive coming and going, believing you’re out just to be back again. The album ends in “That’s Our Lamp," with Mitski standing in the dark, just as the album began. On “Everyone,” Mitski sings “Sometimes I think I am free/ Until I find I’m back in line again." "Working for the Knife" seems to be the most explicit in regards to her relationship to her craft, with a clanking, mechanic beat, reminiscent of some fixed, ever-moving machine, she sings “I start the day lying and end with the truth/ That I’m dying for the knife.”
The use of the music to support Mitski’s lyrical exploration of self in the album is grand at times, and at other times overwhelming — which works thematically, but sonically, is a bit dissonant. In “Love Me More,” it feels as though Mitski’s vocals are competing with the swelling instrumentation, similarly to “I Guess”, but different, where she sounds muddy and disconnected from the music. Many of the other songs take on an 80s new wave, synth-pop type beat. On, “Should’ve Been Me,” “That’s Our Lamp,” “Only Heartbreaker,” and “Love Me More," groovy bass lines and disco drums make Laurel Hell as danceable as Be the Cowboy’s “Nobody." Mitski revealed in a statement that she hoped to make the music more “uptempo and dance-y." "I needed to create something that was also a pep talk…Like, it’s time, we’re going to dance through this,” she said. I think this shows her evolution, standing back and viewing her growth and dancing alongside it. In all, the album contains melodic, arcade-like trills and baroque call and response piano additions, like a Greek chorus alongside her, cheering her on.
“That’s Our Lamp," “Should’ve Been Me,” and “Working for the Knife” are standout tracks, and Mitski’s expanding exploration of different genres and themes reveals that while she was afraid she had lost something in her break, she has far too much insight and potency to find herself forgotten by fans.