Album: Laurel Hell
Label: Dead Oceans
Release Date: Feb. 4
With a distinctly newfound confidence and maturity, the Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski’s sixth studio album, “Laurel Hell,” debuted as a kind of swan song for the artist she has been and for the artist she has become. It is a simultaneous obituary and crystal ball, standing in constant juxtaposition between past and future, self and other, laid against upbeat sounds and sober lyrics.
At a run time of a mere 32 minutes and 31 seconds, “Laurel Hell” establishes itself as one of Mitski’s strongest and most cohesive projects yet in just 11 songs.
“Laurel Hell” begins with the track, “Valentine, Texas,” an opening that exquisitely captures the ongoing themes of loss, growth and acceptance which tie the album together.
With the lyrics, “Who will I be tonight? / Who will I become tonight?” Mitski continues on a tradition of using her artistry to explore and expose her personal identity, particularly in relation to her career.
In addition to setting up what’s to come, “Valentine, Texas,” grounds Mitski to her previous works, including the opening track from her third studio album, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” titled “Texas Reznikoff.”
“Valentine, Texas,” then stands at the precipice of Mitski’s meandering youth and the newfound clarity of later adulthood.
“Working for the Knife,” the second track, proceeds as a starkly mature and cynical meditation on the process of growing older and finally accepting situations beyond one’s control. Originally released as the lead single from “Laurel Hell,” “Working for the Knife” explores the constantness of the pressures that come with turning passion into profit.
In the fourth verse of the song, Mitksi sings:
“I used to think I’d be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change / That I’m living for the knife.”
Mitski is no stranger to contemplating her career in music and her introspective take on maturity.
In the song “Drunk Walk Home,” also from, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” Mitski opens with, “I will retire to the Salton Sea / At the age of 23.”
Then, in “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” from her fourth studio album, “Puberty 2,” Mitski sings:
“I work better under a deadline / I work better under a deadline / I pick an age when I’m gonna disappear / Until then I can try again / Until then I can try again.”
Understanding Mitski’s fantasy of putting an end to her professional music career, one that values her work not for artistry but for monetary means, serves to accentuate the tiredness that is “Working for the Knife.”
It’s a bleak perspective, but its honesty and groundedness causes the sentiment to carry deep into the listener, right in the depths of the chest as a knife of its own.
Operating in tandem with the fourth song, “Everyone,” “Working for the Knife,” turns the album near voyeuristic. It also raises an ethical dilemma: what does it mean to consume the art of others when the industry has consumed the artist themself?
It’s not an easy question to answer, nor does Mitksi give a digestible response in her portrayal of stardom and the music industry’s effects on herself.
Moving away from this slow and pensive quality, comes “Laurel Hell’s” surprisingly upbeat third track, “Stay Soft.”
With an opening rife with synths fitted for a hit 80s movie, “Stay Soft” is almost mocking in its nostalgically delicious beat.
Though on the surface, “Stay Soft” presents a sexy and confident attitude toward physical and emotional intimacy, Mitski’s lyrics deliver in greater complexity as she sings:
“Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell / You stay soft, get beaten / Only natural to harden up / You stay soft, get eaten / Only natural to harden up.”
There’s a kind of humorous coyness in which Mitski plays on the sexual allusion in these lyrics. Yet, at the same time, she’s able to comment on the pain that comes with vulnerability in relationships.
Track nine, “Should’ve Been Me,” stands out as perhaps the most stylistically unique song on the album. Verging on theatrical, “Should’ve Been Me” produces a sensory overload, hurrying to the end of the album. It’s a strangely addicting batch of controlled chaos.
Closing out “Laurel Hell” comes “That’s Our Lamp,” which features an oversaturated positivity reminiscent of the end credits scene in a campy rom-com.
However, despite the deceptively joyful sound, the song is ultimately a verbal closure for the loss of a relationship, with Mitski repeatedly singing, all too happily, “That’s where you loved me.”
Overall, “Laurel Hell” stands out among Mitski’s previous albums as having a solid foundation of identity and confident understanding of the world around the artist.
Though the worldview in “Laurel Hell” is often one of abrasive realness that teeters on detrimental pessimism, the honesty and assuredness of Mitski keeps the piece from becoming a melodrama.
With lyrics that expose the rich complexities of Mitski’s introspection and contemplation coupled with an adventurous meshing of genres from 80s synth-pop to modern indie sounds, “Laurel Hell” hails itself as a delightfully intriguing masterpiece.
Kara Anderson is a senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Kara Anderson is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum. She is an English and Spanish double major and is pursuing a certificate in creative writing. She enjoys baking chocolate chip cookies, procrastinating with solitaire and binging reality TV on the weekends.