By Lexi Weaver || Copy Editor
Laurel Hell, Mitski’s sixth studio album, was released February 4th of this year—her first since 2018’s critically acclaimed Be the Cowboy. In the wake of Mitski’s return to writing music, the highly anticipated Laurel Hell was preceded by four singles—Working for the Knife, The Only Heartbreaker, Heat Lightning, and Love Me More, starting in 2021. The album continues a sonic similarity established in earlier albums like Be the Cowboy, which juxtaposes electronic dance beats with raw lyricism. As she moves between haunting ballads and synth-pop inspired tracks, Mitski once again proves herself to be a gifted lyricist, as she explores themes such as loneliness and the struggle of existing in the public eye through dark yet upbeat melodies.
The album’s first track, Valentine, Texas, is a slow-burner, as its sparse beginning eventually explodes into a piano-driven, enthralling melody. On Valentine, Texas, Mitski begins by singing, “Let’s step carefully into the dark,” which establishes the theme of vulnerability in the public eye—which she exposes and explores throughout the album. She also raises the question of, “Who will I become tonight?” which in a way becomes the central thesis of Laurel Hell, as she describes herself through visceral imagery, proving that just because her music is deeply personal, it does not mean she shares every part of herself in it. Mitski plays with contradictions throughout the album, especially in regards to her public persona, as well as the pressure of being an artist in the public sphere—encapsulated in the imagery of mountains she hopes “float off” of her.
On tracks such as Working for the Knife, Mitski confronts the fact that she is getting older, as well as the passage of time in the context of her art. She uses the motif of the knife in order to express her frustration at the oppressive nature of creating art under the constraints of capitalism and her own struggles with mental illness. The monotony of life is laid bare, as she remarks on how time keeps moving forward, often leaving her behind. Mitski’s ability to use imagery and motifs in her lyrics to comment on more complex ideas is highlighted on Laurel Hell, as the conventionally sharp image of a knife is dulled to reflect how she has become accustomed to this monotony.
For me, the stand-out songs on the album are Love Me More and Should’ve Been Me. Admittedly, this is more a reflection of my deeply entrenched love of 80s pop than anything, but both songs perfectly capture Mitski’s use of the genre. Here, Mitski fully embraces the 80s-inspired synth-pop sound, a sonic element of the album that I loved. Love Me More confronts feelings of isolation and loneliness, tied closely to Mitski’s experiences as an artist. The thematic throughline of art as an isolating force is deeply connected to the album title as well, as the image of laurels seems to suggest the laurel wreaths once granted to gifted poets. The juxtaposition of this with Hell reveals how Mitski’s status as a celebrated artist could be seen as a curse, a hellish existence. Similarly, Should’ve Been Me addresses themes of loneliness but through the lens of a relationship that has ended, with Mitski admitting that her emotional detachment could have been the cause. She describes how her partner has moved on, now in a relationship with “a girl who [looks] just like me,” making it clear that it’s difficult to move on when she is constantly being reminded that it could’ve been her in that relationship.
On the whole, the more stripped-down ballads like I Guess and Everyone are overshadowed by more upbeat-sounding tracks such as Stay Soft and That’s Our Lamp. The album feels a bit disjointed as a result, because few songs fall between these two extremes. However, this does not take much away from the overall enjoyment of the album, which feels less jarring on repeat listens. Mitski’s complicated relationship with music and creating it as a career is at the heart of Laurel Hell, and her use of contradictory images and juxtaposition between melodies and lyrics ties back into the paradoxical nature of the album’s title itself. As a result, Laurel Hell is a deeply nuanced album that highlights Mitski’s perceptive writing and openness to vulnerability. At a time in which many people are likely feeling isolated, Laurel Hell emerges as an album that invites listeners to take comfort in this sense of shared loneliness. As Mitski toys with the tension between isolation and public visibility, listening to Laurel Hell is a reminder of the power and innovation of one of indie rock’s most consistently engaging artists.
Sophomore Lexi Weaver is a Copy Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.