Mitski: Laurel Hell – Lingering brilliance drifts into the gothic

Fri, Jan 28, 2022, 05:00


Laurel Hell


Dead Oceans


After 2019’s Be The Cowboy – a masterful alt-pop collection exploring the gritty depths of romance and intimacy – Mitski announced an indefinite hiatus. The runaway success of that fifth record found her longing for another life, away from the spotlight, nightly performances and toll of the industry. But she was still under contract to deliver another album to her label, Dead Oceans, and she’s made good on it in the form of Laurel Hell, released on February 4th.

Thankfully, this is far from contract fulfilment. Sometime in the mess of the past three years, Mitski found the energy to create music again, though it wasn’t easy. She “cries at the start of every movie”, wishing she “was making things, too” on Working for the Knife, a troublesome tableau of creativity under capitalism, where her energy chips away with every crack of the stone hammer.

Love, too, has a malevolent edge: hearts open “like the gates of hell” (Stay Soft); love is “enough to drown me out” (Love Me More); trees sway “like sea anemones” (Heat Lightning). Her lyrics jolt us sideways, away from what we expect from love songs. 

The brilliance lies in the places where she lingers; lyrics run over too many lines, a calm, detached delivery; minor intervals hint towards a resolution that never comes. The focus is always, somehow, on the wrong part of the image – the “wet teeth, shining eyes” of Valentine, Texas – lingering too long until it becomes something somatic, gothic, grotesque.

The album has been through a few iterations – punk first, then country, eventually settling in the world of synths and keys. The bright, funk-derived guitars of Be The Cowboy are largely absent. Instead, a maudlin piano provides the bedrock for even the record’s more upbeat tunes. 

Should’ve Been Me takes the descending piano scales of Dancing Queen and pushes them through the looking-glass. The dark ecstasy of Love Me More is a marriage between Flashdance and The Exorcist. Tension builds on Heat Lightning, giving way to free-floating piano scales that are gentle yet restless as she lies awake under the “sleeping eyelid of the sky”.

“I guess this is the end, I’ll have to learn to be somebody else” goes a haunting piano waltz near the close of the record. With a sold-out world tour (including support for Harry Styles in the UK later this year) this is indeed the end of something for Mitski. 

The relative anonymity of indie stardom is slipping away as venue sizes and record sales swell; something lost and something gained in the crossover. On Laurel Hell, Mitski pauses just beyond the horizon, uncertain of what is to come