Shellby Silva
Staff Writer

Mitski released her sixth album, Laurel Hell, on Feb. 4, 2022, through the record label Dead Oceans and alongside producer Patrick Hyland. Laurel Hell is available on several platforms such as Apple Music, Pandora, YouTube Music, and Spotify. Naturally, Mitski announced a sold-out tour for this year with two L.A. dates on March 2 and March 3 at the Shrine Exposition Hall. In addition to her own tour, she will also be opening for Harry Styles’ UK tour dates.

After the release of Mitski’s fifth album, Be the Cowboy, in 2018, she gained a larger audience and fanbase on an international level. These pivotal events shaped and shifted her career as her music became more mainstream. Consequently, she had a lot more eyes on her, felt the stifling pressure of being a widely-known musician, and was overwhelmed by the demanding expectations of the music industry, all of which are topics she interweaves in Laurel Hell. 

After announcing a break from music and going on hiatus in 2019, Mitski admitted in an interview with BBC Radio, “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. I needed to step away to get out of that mechanism and just learn how to be human again, I think.” The first single and second track on the album, “Working for the Knife” was released on Oct. 5, 2021, and it articulates the poisonous environment that the music industry can be. The song also served as an introduction to the long-awaited return of Mitski’s music. She discusses her thoughts on her music career during the past few years, “I used to think I’d be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same/Though maybe at thirty, I’ll see a way to change/That I’m living for the knife.” Specifically, Mitski felt that the fame was like a steel ball that she was chained to. Her world, which was full of gloom at one point, resulted from the sudden fame she obtained. Perhaps the most symbolic song from the album, “Working for the Knife” is an honest reflection on her craft and career as someone being swept up in the music industry. This song is the most alluring from the whole album which prompts me to give the overall album a rating of 8/10. In a way, “Working for the Knife” remains consistent with the authenticity and depth that I appreciate in Mitski’s music. Moreover, I appreciate the intensity and richness of the tracks that include insightful topics and themes, which are paired with both soft and stimulating sounds.

The album unveiled the darkness lurking within the depths of Mitski’s mind, commencing the first of 11 songs, with “Valentine, Texas” and inviting listeners to her domain with the first words, “Let’s step carefully into the dark.” It’s a dramatic song with enchanting vocals that immediately sets the tone and reveals the essence of the album. By the end of the album, “That’s Our Lamp” contrasts the initial darkness through the use of brighter instruments, gleaming effects, and vibrant notes. This song also threw in a groovy bassline and cowbell which made it sound upbeat. However, the undertones and lyrics tie back to the darkness, with lines such as “I’m standing in the dark/Looking up into our room/Where you’ll be waiting for me.” Essentially, several of the songs use a mixture of light and dark tonalities.

In between the first and final songs from the album, the third song, “Stay Soft,” includes a steady funky bassline underneath lyrics such as, “Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell / You stay soft, get eaten / Only natural to harden up” The theme of this song is that in order to protect oneself, people tend to shield their heart and mind by toughening up instead of being destroyed by anything that might hurt them. In this case, Mitski must have learned to anchor herself and protect herself from the fame and crushing grip of the music industry. The fourth song from the album, “Everyone,” continues to reveal the difficult life of being a musician through the lyrics, “And I opened my arms wide to the dark / I said, ‘Take it all, whatever you want’ / I didn’t know that I was young / I didn’t know what it would take / I didn’t know what it would take / Sometimes, I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again.” Mitski depicts the suffocating experience of giving up one’s soul to music, sacrificing oneself, and being like a bird in a cage. Similar to this song, the third single and fifth track from Laurel Hell, released on Dec. 7, 2021, “Heat Lightning,” evokes feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. With somber lyrics such as, “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change / I give it up to you, I surrender,” Mitski sounds like she has lost the strength and will to fight back–leaving it up to others.

The second single and sixth song from the album, released on Nov. 9, 2021, “The Only Heartbreaker,” is a gripping song she sings in a velvety, smooth voice, “So I’ll be the loser in this game / I’ll be the bad guy in the play.” Mitski finds herself playing the villain and accepting the consequences of being the one who hurts others instead of being wounded herself. The fourth single and seventh song released on Jan. 12, 2022, “Love Me More,” is a desperate cry for love that will ultimately end up being like a double-edged sword by drowning her out. Her usual mellow, low vocals become urgent and breathy while she sings the lyrics, “Love enough to fill me up / Fill me up, fill me full up / I need you to love me more / Love me more, love me more / Love enough to drown it out / Drown it out, drown me out.” After that set of lyrics, Mitski questions how other artists can keep up with the draining experience of living up to their occupation, “How do other people live? / I wonder how they keep it up / When today is finally done / There’s another day to come / Then another day to come.” Throughout the album, Mitski talks about the challenges of devoting oneself to a craft, constantly creating new material, and meeting the expectations of the music industry and fans.

Although many of her songs appear to be about romance on the surface, they can also be interpreted as narratives illustrating her relationships with herself, others, and the music industry. In a statement discussing her new album, Mitski commented, “I needed love songs about real relationships that are not power struggles to be won or lost. I needed songs that could help me forgive both others and myself. I make mistakes all the time. I don’t want to put on a front where I’m a role model, but I’m also not a bad person. I needed to create this space mostly for myself, where I sat in that gray area.” 

The eighth song, “There’s Nothing Left Here for You,” is the most mellow song from the album. However, it temporarily fluctuates in energy, going from a soft, steady electronic tempo to grand, loud clashing on cymbals, which quickly transitions to a pulsing tempo similar to a slowed-down, electronic version of a horse galloping. This song is also talking about the pain that comes with love, such as leaving someone or something and having to move on. The next song on the album, “Should’ve Been Me” reminded me of the ’80s hit, “Maneater,” by Daryl Hall & John Oates due to its catchy percussion, fast tempo, and heavy use of keys. Although on the surface it relates to the common theme relating to tragic love, the song discusses the unhealthy complexities of all-consuming relationships: “I haven’t given you what you need / You wanted me, but couldn’t reach me / I’m sorry, it should’ve been me.” I related this to the way her fanbase was unable to reach Mitski and her music during her hiatus, when she deactivated her social media accounts in 2019 and stopped releasing music. The second-to-last song from the album, “I Guess,” has a dark mood as she sings, “I guess this is the end, I’ll have to learn to be somebody else.” Once again, Mitski’s feelings of uncertainty connect back to her role as a musician. Also, she feels that her identity is being erased or being molded in a way that is not who she wants to be.

Mitski’s Laurel Hell has traces of genres like Darkwave and electronic pop that were pioneered by musicians mainly from the 1980s, such as Depeche Mode, New Order, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure. One of the defining aspects of Mitski’s music is the duality and range of the tracks. Mitski’s new album has songs such as “There’s Nothing Left for You” and “I Guess” which are perfect for listening to with tears running down your cheeks while raindrops falling from gray skies slide down the windows. Laurel Hell also includes the perfect tracks such as “The Only Heartbreaker,” “Should’ve Been Me,” and “That’s Our Lamp” to dance wildly to, jumping around your room while the LED lights illuminate your personal dancefloor with different shades of purple, red, and blue. 

Mitski has always had a unique way with lyrics. Her lyrics seize you and throw you into her world where you discover her state of mind through her experiences. Similar to Mitski’s previous albums, Laurel Hell is an introspective form of art that expresses a sense of vulnerability, and self-awareness. Many songs from the album disguised dark lyrics beneath colorful melodies layered over flowy synthesizers which leave you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth. The album encompasses her deepest fears, anxieties, and general emotional state. The music introduces Mitski’s new sound and style by incorporating indie-pop elements and electric keys. Although several of her songs are quite catchy, Mitski’s signature melancholy touch is undoubtedly present. Laurel Hell contains a high level of intimacy similar to a letter of confessions that documents her inner spirit.

Featured Image: Courtesy of NPR

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In collaboration by Quaker Campus staff members.

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