Mitski is cautiously optimistic on new ’80s-inspired record ‘Laurel Hell’

Album artwork for 'Laurel Hell' (Photo courtesy of Mitski/Dead Oceans)

By Audrey Martin
Boston University News Service

“Let’s step carefully into the dark,” is the opening line to Mitski’s sixth studio album, “Laurel Hell, ” an inward-facing, ’80s-inspired rock record that sees Mitski tepidly reenter the spotlight after a three-year break.

For an artist who spent the majority of her career churning out music chock-full of angst and debilitating despair, “Laurel Hell,” released Feb. 5, is not a radical shift toward any new themes or soundscapes. It might sound a little brighter and more upbeat, but the old Mitski is still there, hiding between the pulses of an overworked drum machine. 

Mitski (Mitsuki Laycock), a decade removed from her first step into public life, spends a good deal of time on “Laurel Hell” reflecting on her life and career. 

For many — perhaps even Mitski herself — the album’s creation is somewhat of a surprise, given that in 2019 Mitski announced that she would be taking a step back from performing and releasing music for the foreseeable future. With a run time of just over 32 minutes, “Laurel Hell” feels less like Mitski diving back into the music industry and more like she’s cautiously dipping her toe in.

Throughout the record, Mitski keeps one foot planted solidly on the ground, never allowing herself to completely lose control as she has on previous records. The result is an uneasy tone that is present on almost every track, as even Mitski herself doesn’t appear too sure of whether she’s happy to be back making music again. This dichotomy is present in the very structure of the album; “Laurel Hell” itself is a collection of melancholic lyricism tied together with a cool, vintage rock ribbon. 

After five albums of unabashedly and relentlessly sharing her pain with millions of listeners, the 31-year-old has built up a few walls. She says as much on “Stay Soft,” a gently upbeat pop track where her signature wry lyricism is put on full display: “You stay soft, get beaten / Only natural to harden up.” 

Mitski does appear to have a somewhat tainted perception of love, life, and the music industry, but to call “Laurel Hell” cynical would be an oversimplification.  She’s older and knows how cruel and soul-sucking so much of adult life can be, but it’s her reaction to this that keeps the record from feeling too pessimistic. 

“And there’s nothing I can do, not much I can change / So, I give it up to you, I hope that’s okay,” she relents on “Heat Lightning.” Life might be hard but that’s just life. Either you wallow forever or you try to make the best of things. Mitski has chosen the latter.

During a time when Phoebe Bridgers-esque alt-rock rules all, Mitski veered in a different direction.  “Laurel Hell” is punctuated with thumping drums and shimmering synths. There isn’t an acoustic guitar to be heard and none of the songs last longer than four minutes. It might not be pop, but it’s certainly packaged that way. 

The abundance of instrumentation acts as a wall between Mitski and her listeners. Singing these songs over piano or guitar would feel far too personal. While she might be letting listeners back in, she’s doing it on her own terms. 

On “Working for the Knife,” the album’s first single, Mitski muses, “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too.” Despite the record’s often simplistic instrumentation sounding more Madonna than Springsteen, Mitski’s lyrics are still as biting as ever. 

While Mitski’s previous work had a tendency to wallow in its own despair, “Laurel Hell” comes across as hopeful and cautiously optimistic. On “That’s Our Lamp,” the album’s superb closer, Mitski sings “’Cause you just don’t like me / Not like you used to,” over an almost dizzyingly cheerful orchestration. It thematically ties the record together. She may be stepping back into the dark, but there’s a light present as well. 

“Laurel Hell” does not focus on love, but it has some romantic moments. The understated “I Guess” is a rumination on the quiet end of a relationship that ends with Mitski thanking her partner for the good times they shared. In contrast, “The Only Heartbreaker” is a sweet promise to a new partner that Mitski will try her hardest to not break their heart, even if it means she gets hurt.

“Laurel Hell” is more cohesive than past Mitski records, but it lacks the recklessness and experimentation that made those records so memorable. There are no “Class of 2013s” or “I Bet on Losing Dogs” to be found here. The album is solid front-to-back, but the individual songs don’t pack the same gut punches that listeners expect from Mitski. 

Mitski now seems unwilling to take the kinds of leaps and risks she did when she was younger and had less to lose — the kinds of risks that made her music edgy and set her apart from the hundreds of other indie singer-songwriters out there. 

 “Laurel Hell” proves that even while playing it safe, Mitski can make a sharp and memorable album. 

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