Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Mitski Laurel Hell

Dead Oceans
Dead Oceans

“I don’t want to be a musician’s musician,” Mitski told me a few years ago. “I want to be an everyone’s musician.” Be careful what you wish for. In the interviews leading up to her new album Laurel Hell, Mitski has talked about how her explosion in popularity left her feeling disconnected from her music and, especially, the environment it’s made in. “I felt it was shaving away my soul little by little,” she said. “The music industry is this supersaturated version of consumerism. You are the product being consumed, bought, sold.” Mitski has become the vessel for a whole lot of other people’s feelings, and with that comes the good (sold-out shows, a devoted fanbase) and the bad (conspiracy theories, intense parasocial relationships).

Her music, and by extension herself, has been commodified to the extreme. On parts of Laurel Hell, Mitski grapples with how that can feel. “I wish that this would go away/ But when I’m done singing this song I will have to find something else/ To do to keep me here,” she sings on “Love Me More,” whose chorus betrays the rush of admiration that comes with being in the spotlight while the verses reveal someone more conflicted. Lead single “Working For The Knife” reflects the suffocation that happens when your passion becomes just another job: “I always thought the choice was mine/ And I was right but I just chose wrong.” I’d imagine the push-and-pull between having and wanting fame is more complicated than Mitski makes it out to be; that she’s participating in another album rollout — and only two years (and one pandemic) removed from her “final show” — is a testament to that. I’d also imagine that it’s hard when the genuine emotion behind your art is flattened out to something of a meme, when your ambition is weaponized into a success that’s impossible to prepare for.

With that in mind, Laurel Hell is purposefully more low-key and at least trying to be lower stakes. It lacks some of the yearning that courses through Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Puberty 2 and Be The Cowboy, perhaps in part because Mitski has already found the audience she was seeking. Mitski is making the music she wants to be making, and she’s doing it well, but Laurel Hell is sometimes stifled by that lack of drive. Where on Be The Cowboy it felt like Mitski was trying on a different outfit for every song, Laurel Hell is more single-minded. This is at least partially intentional — a “laurel hell” is a thicket of woods so deep and impassable that it’s difficult to escape when everything looks the same — but Mitski returns to the same well a few too many times for an album that clocks in at 33 minutes.

The sonic blueprint for the album has its roots in “Nobody,” the Be The Cowboy track that, thanks to TikTok, has become Mitski’s signature song. While that song was pushed along by a disco thump, this one transposes that energy to more ’80s reference points (ABBA, Tears For Fears), with a dash of the piano-school pop from Mitski’s earliest albums, which have also seen a resurgence because of social media. “Stay Soft,” “The Only Heartbreaker,” “Love Me More,” “Should’ve Been Me,” and “That’s Our Lamp” are all cut from the same cloth, and while individually they work pretty well, taken together it’s too much of the same. As Mitski tells it, the album’s songs “went through so many iterations,” and that “this album has been a punk record at some point, and a country record.” Just a handful of those different iterations could have gone a long way.

It’s a shame because the moments when Mitski strays from that sound are so strong. Laurel Hell feels like the most deliberately composed of all her albums, and there are parts that reach cinematic brilliance: when “Heat Lightning” breaks out into that flutter of piano keys, how “There’s Nothing Left For You” burbles from simmering atmosphere into a collision of guitars and sky-scraping noise. “Valentine, Texas” is another classic Mitski album opener, following the same quiet-loud dynamic as “Geyser” and “Texas Reznikoff” while somehow sounding both the most restrained and the most unhinged. “Working For The Knife,” with its Scott Walker-esque queasiness, is another highlight. The inventiveness of those moments aren’t entirely absent from the album’s synth-pop songs, but it does feel like Mitski would have been better served by once again embracing the tonal whiplashes that made her past albums so memorable and varied.

As a lyricist, Mitski remains as sharp as ever, adept at mining the thorny power dynamics at play in any relationship. The narrators of her songs are distinct. They can be invigorating or pathetic, menacing and enticing in the same breath. “Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight?” Mitski asks on the opening track. “I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met/ Wet teeth, shining eyes/ Glimmering by a fire.” They can be forward and funny: “Just tell me what you want to do/ Tell me what you want/ To burn away/ ‘Cause I could be your stoker” goes a line from “Stay Soft.” They can be defiant and frustrating: “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.” A lot of her characters feel informed by the horror films Mitski mainlines, like on “Should’ve Been Me,” where she’s haunted by funhouse mirror images. “When I saw the girl looked just like me/ And it broke my heart, the lengths you went/ To hold me/ To get to have me,” she sings, finding empathy in adultery. “‘Cause I haven’t given you what you need/ You wanted me but couldn’t reach me/ So you went into your memory-relived/ All the ways you still want me.”

If Laurel Hell is a stumble, it’s a slight one. This is still a solid collection of songs, but it’s also the first step down that Mitski has taken in nearly a decade. For an artist whose discography has been as satisfying as Mitski’s has, a minor work is nothing to sniff at. It seems like Mitski perhaps had reservations about making the album at all. She’s talked about how she wanted to retire from music, but also how much she loves being on stage performing, and Laurel Hell‘s more upbeat songs lend themselves to that theatrical aspect. “Everything in the world has a cost,” she recently said. “If I truly want the greatest magic in the world, the highest euphoria, the best thing, if I want to do that, I’m going to have to pay an equivalent price.” Less exciting is the prospect of having her recorded songs living on independent of her physical presence, when they become projections for other people’s pain. But that’s the price you pay to be an everyone’s musician.

Laurel Hell is out 2/4 via Dead Oceans.

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