Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about women on the verge — Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater, Raymond Kennedy’s Ride A Cockhorse, D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (all courtesy of my New York Review Of Books obsession) — and I’ve been seeing a lot of Mitski in these stories.
Or rather I’ve been noticing similarities with the narrators that populate Mitski’s songs. They numb themselves with excess; they push boundaries as a way to assert control. On her new album, The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We, Mitski renders vivid portraits of people in the throes of nervous breakdown — haunted by the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve left unsaid. “So yeah, I blast my music loud/ And I work myself to the bone/ And on an inconvenient Christmas, I eat a cake/ A whole cake, all for me!” goes one of the most memorable of these renderings on “I Don’t Like My Mind.” Lines like this are delivered with a casual defiance, as her characters express a lack of concern for the consequences of their actions. “Stride through the house naked/ Don’t even care that the curtains are open/ Let the darkness see me,” she sings on album closer “I Love Me After You,” sauntering through the wreckage of another destroyed possibility.
Mitski’s seventh full-length album is simmering and restrained, beholden to nobody. Whereas last year’s Laurel Hell felt beholden to “Nobody,” the surprise viral success that Mitski seemed to be chasing with the album’s punishingly pulsing ’80s sonic palette. The most successful parts of Laurel Hell were its most muted; her new album, thankfully, follows that thread, recalling the sputtering operatics of “Heat Lightning” or the roiling burbles of “Working For The Knife.” It’s the first Mitski album in a while that doesn’t feel reactive, tangled up in reflecting on her career and her complicated relationship with fame. Instead, it feels detached from expectations, like Mitski is settling into uncompromising mid-career mode, no longer having anything to prove. Though The Land Is Inhospitable is Mitski’s most intricate, widescreen album to date — utilizing an orchestra and choir and a live-band studio setup — it’s also her most intimate, pointedly low-key in its execution, atmospheric and quietly confident. The songs are worthy of the complexities of her words.
Those songs can be knotty, difficult, and surprising. Take “The Deal,” in which Mitski describes a Faustian bargain made between herself and a twittering bird she encounters on a long walk alone at night, an exchange that leaves her without a soul but no longer haunted by regret. But a life without regret is no life at all: “Your pain is eased, but you’ll never be free.” A lonesome, scratchy acoustic guitar explodes into pounding drums at the suggestion of relief; the song’s conclusion is overwhelming, as every element introduced sparingly throughout the track plays all at once in a glorious cacophony.
She employs a similar strategy on “I’m Your Man,” slow and mournful until its unbearable sadness cracks into a plotted-out chorus of outdoor sounds: frogs croaking, dogs barking, insects chirping, and an ooh ooh refrain that sounds almost prehistoric. “When Memories Snow” is staggering, building to a queasy, baroque swagger that’s feverish in its intensity as she overflows with anxiety: “When memories melt/ I hear them in the drainpipe/ Dripping through the downspout/ As I lie awake in the dark.” From a compositional standpoint, these are some of the best songs that Mitski has ever made: moody and glowering and ecstatic, invigorating in how all the pieces come together so assuredly into an explosive crescendo.
But more often than not, The Land Is Inhospitable is gentle, sweeping, tantalizing in its unresolved tension. It’s her most cohesive work to date, with a mood akin to ice melting in a whiskey glass: crisp, bitterly refreshing. Her heaving sonics work themselves into unexpected places, like on the lurching “Buffalo Replaced,” where she personifies her unshakeable hope as an unattended animal: “She shits where she’s supposed to, feeds herself when I’m away.” The album’s loungey ballads, the twilit “My Love Mine All Mine” and the twangy “Heaven,” are lovely — especially the latter, as Mitski sings of a love that’s cozy even in its absence: “Now I bend like a willow thinking of you/ Like a murmuring brook curving about you/ As I sip on the rest of the coffee you left/ A kiss left of you.” But she, of course, saves her most cutting poetics for heartbreak, like the lingering pain of “The Frost”: “You’re my best friend/ Now I’ve no one to tell/ How I lost my best friend/ The frost, it looks/ Like we’ve been left in the attic/ But you’re not here to see/ It’s just witness-less me.”
Mitski is at her most elegantly disturbed on The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We. She’s also, contradictorily but not really, at her sweetest and most sentimental — writing songs about falling in and out of love, expressing how we can give all of ourselves for nothing in return or give all of ourselves but only for a little while until we’re left depleted. “That love is like a star/ It’s gone, we just see it shining,” she sings on the celestially-minded “Star,” burning bright before burning out and leaving only a flickering in its wake. “I’m sorry I’m the one you love/ No one will ever love me like you again,” goes the scraping hook on “I’m Your Man.” “So when you leave me, I should die/ I deserve it, don’t I?” The twinges of loneliness, grief, and fleeting happiness that pass through The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We more than earn its dramatic title. The name feels almost too meager for an album that so compellingly contemplates the many ways we sabotage ourselves in our relationships, choosing to be cruel when all we want is to be kind.
The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We is out 9/15 via Dead Oceans.