Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Laurel Hell, the forthcoming long-awaited follow-up to Mitski’s 2019 album, Be the Cowboy.
“Let’s step carefully into the dark. Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around,” Mitski promises listeners on the opening line of her new album, Laurel Hell. There’s a bit of lag between the doubled vocal tracks, creating a subtle, eerie echo over the ominous opening synth drone. As a result, we hear each of her crisp consonants twice in quick succession, resembling the sound of a sharp santoku executing a confident mince against a sturdy cutting board. Following the 31-year-old artist’s hiatus, the line feels like an intense and magnetic old friend reaching out to pick back up where you left off.
Mitski’s two-and-a-half-year break, and the burnout and suffering that prompted it, is both a distant recurring theme throughout the album, and what offered the space that made her return possible. When she left, she was unsure if she’d come back. She’s explained the necessity for a break was due to a destructive cocktail of consecutive years of rigorous touring, and the constant spiritual wear that comes from being forced — as any successful artist in a capitalist economy, to some degree, must — to turn your personhood into a product for mass consumption. Shortly after she stepped away from the music industry, at the end of 2019, she wrote the album’s lead single, “Working for the Knife.” In many ways, the track feels like a grim companion to her last album’s lead single, “Geyser,” on which she presents a metaphor for the explosive internal drive to create. What if, the narrator on “Working for the Knife” asks, that same inevitable force is propelling you toward a life or environment that is deteriorating you? The song’s syncopated percussion clanks like a childish taunt and guitar chords distort and warp the way hot air bends and refracts light.
Due out February 4 on Dead Oceans, Laurel Hell is named after a folk term from the Southern Appalachians where the beautiful, dense laurel plants grow abundantly. Much like the idea of a successful livelihood creating music and following your dreams, the plant is stunning and alluring. However, as the term “laurel hell” suggests, laurels are dangerous, poisonous and made up of gnarled and knotted branches that leave humans and wildlife alike prone to getting stuck inside of their patches.
Taking a cue from some of the shiniest, most upbeat moments on her last album, Laurel Hell leans into New Wave, disco and ’80s pop, making it her most danceable record yet. While Mitski frequently maintains her uncanny ability to produce sounds and melodies that are distinctively Mitski, at any given moment in time, songs on the album evoke a range from Sylvester to ABBA to Depeche Mode. She explained to journalist Matt Wilkinson on Apple Music 1 that the record had gone through a variety of sounds: At various points during the album’s production, it started to take the shape of a punk record or a collection of sad-sounding rock songs. At one point, it was a country album. Perhaps surprisingly, what ultimately pushed Mitski and her longtime producer, Patrick Hyland, toward a bright and shiny sonic universe was a reaction to the impact of COVID-19.
“As the pandemic progressed, Patrick and I stopped being able to — we just couldn’t stand the idea of making another sort of sad dreary album. We just couldn’t do it,” she said. “I think we were thinking about, ‘What kind of feeling do we want to produce? We want to produce something that’s hopeful. When did music feel hopeful? The ’80s.”
The characters we find on Mitski’s latest are, unsurprisingly, much more complicated than many of those on their gimmering ’80s predecessors. On the synth explosion “The Only Heartbreaker” — the only song on the record and first song in Mitski’s catalog to share a co-writing credit, in this case, with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson — the protagonist self-assumes the role of “bad guy” in a relationship, but identifies their mistakes as a signifier of effort and emotional investment. A sexual narrative charges bass-driven “Stay Soft,” but it’s one of desperation and danger, suggesting the reciprocal cost vulnerability and pleasure often come with: “Open up your heart, like the gates of hell,” she sings. “Should’ve Been Me” carries the exact sentiment the title suggests, but unlike the majority of “that should’ve been me” songs, this narrator apologizes and takes the blame: “I haven’t given you what you need.” Mitski’s narrative table is driven by realism, and there’s room for paradox and complication; the good, the bad, the anger, the promise, the desperation, the success, the depletion — they all dine together in harmony and perfect conversation.
“I’m not saying there’s no nuance in pop music, but I think a prevailing narrative in pop music is that of the good guy and the bad guy,” she told Wilkinson. “And those songs never really express the full spectrum of what I’m feeling and my reality. And my reality is that sometimes I realize I’m the bad person in the relationship; sometimes I’m messing up. Or sometimes, the other person in the relationship did something wrong, but you understand why and you see them as a full person so you have compassion toward them.”
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.