Review: Mitski – Laurel Hell

So, it’s been about 4 years since I first checked out Mitski’s discography in lieu of her 2018 effort Be The Cowboy which became one of my favorite albums of that year. It was the one that I spend the most time going into beforehand, and since then she has gone into an hiatus, only doing soundtrack work for the 2020 horror movie The Turning and for a comic This is Where We Fall.

However in 2021, she was slowly emerging out of her hiatus with some new tracks, and we got a new album, Laurel Hell, dated for 2022. Now in case you’re wondering what the term ‘Laurel Hell’ meant, it’s laurel bushes which grow in these dense thickets, and it’s also named after the people who died within them because they were stuck, as quoted by Mitski herself during an interview about the album itself. So, as for the album…

I think it’s fair to say this is an album that has a very 80s-influenced sound: new wave, electro-rock, and indie with elements of pop and dance music as well. Originally, this was going to be conceived as a punk and/or country album before the electronic elements came in. The first track “Valentine, Texas” has this glam-rock style that kicks in after the slow-building intro with Mitski’s quiet yet shimmering vocals and slight references to an actual town called Valentine, Texas as well as a track from her album Bury Me At Makeout Creek.

“Working for the Knife” has Mitski performing in a 5-verse structure going over some cynical subjects as going under the “knife” is a metaphor for capitalism with the song having a monotonous structure and this lyric:

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

It’s mainly on how you might have passive suicidal thoughts, thinking  this might be the end but that thought still remains even when you turn a certain age.

The subject matter in the album varies a lot from relationships (I quote from Mitski: ‘that are not power struggles to be won or lost’) to themes of isolation that have become more relevant to the lockdown. The thing about that is… this was written before COVID-19, with one example being the track “Love Me More” and the lyric “If I keep myself at home.” That line can mean different things in regards to the now.  Remember how she had a track called “Nobody” on her last album? Well, there’s “Everyone” on this album, and this song in particular is about her rise to fame in music, especially as an Asian-American woman. Come to think of it, the subjects of her music career and relationships do parallel each other, evidently in the song “There’s Nothing Left For You” as she sings about having nothing left to give for her partner and that the feeling is gone.

Everyone, all of them
Everyone said, “Don’t go that way”
So, of course, to that, I said
“I think I’ll go that way”

And I left the door open to the dark
I said, “Come in, come in, whatever you are”

But it didn’t want me yet

“Stay Soft” has this pop-rock  vibe with an inviting dance beat, but the lyrics are (and were) depressing when you know the song is about vulnerable people finding each other and using sex as a coping mechanism which isn’t really always ideal. But they do what they do, and also it’s a double entendre when you get to this lyrics:

(You stay soft, get beaten
Only natural to harden up

“Should’ve Been Me” starts off with this enticing xylophone beat, and the song is all about poor communication from her partner but also how she often blames herself for being emotionally unavailable.

Rounding things off for the album. “I Guess” and “That’s Our Lamp” are two tracks that get introspective about her relationship, being grateful for the breakup and hoping to learn more about herself, but it’s not framed as anything messy, and the latter does reminisce on the good times she had with her lover and how they loved and liked her.

Whenever it comes to reviewing a project or anything from Mitski, it’s something I have to sit with for a while and give multiple listens to so I can understand the themes and not just label it as “sad-girl music.” Yes, the lyrics are often depressing underneath the inviting and bouncy production in some songs, but it isn’t just ‘Oh, I’m sad and shit. Listen to my wailing voice!’ In fact, Mitski herself said that she didn’t want to make another sad and dreary album, and for the most part, it’s not. It’s merely her being human going through the mistakes and woes she encountered in her life.

Again, I went through multiple listens, and I got to say I do appreciate how she (along with her usual producer Patrick Hyland) crafted this album, especially with how it incorporates ’80s-inspired sounds while still having her stamp all over it.  It is an interesting listen, and once you get it, you will understand and appreciate the album for what it is.

FINAL VERDICT: Buy It. Listening to this won’t make you feel like hell. Quite the opposite really.

LAUREL HELL is on Dead Oceans Records and is available on digital download, vinyl and on streaming services.

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