Posted inCultures

Review: Laurel Hell

Illustration by Yii-Jen Deng

“Let’s step carefully into the dark,” sings Mitski, in the first line of “Valentine, Texas”, the opener of her new album, Laurel Hell. “Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around.” She might be talking about the titular laurel hell of the album, a dense impassable thicket where one can only too easily lose their way, in which lurks a monster, with “wet teeth, shining eyes.” But this is also a metaphor for the essential nature of narrative storytelling more generally, and of the trap that is art-making: an activity that can be unsatisfying, disorienting, and can often create more questions than answers.

The song is understated; its atmosphere is the Mississippi heartland on a wet hot summer night. Later in the album it will be lit with “heat lightning”; here, the “clouds look like mountains.” Mitski, an artist who often lives deeply within a persona, and made famous by what can only be described as her fans’ yassification of that persona, has come to reflect more self-consciously on that persona in Laurel Hell than in any of her albums to date.

If Laurel Hell could be summed up in a sentence, it would be that “art is hard, maybe”. On “Working for the Knife”, Mitski explains, for example, her feelings of utter dissociation in the tricky balance of art and capitalism: “I used to think I would tell stories, / But nobody cared for the stories I had about / no good guys.” On the one hand, this might be a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the fact that Mitski’s little parables of broken love are nowhere near as popular as Taylor Swift’s, for example. But it might also refer to the utter inscrutability of her confused persona. In any case, misunderstood Mitski finds herself “living”, “working”, “dying” for “the knife”.

But I think it’s a bit lazy to say that Mitski has decided to rail against the machine of capitalism. She’s certainly situated herself oddly if this is meant to be a protest record. In a recent Crack magazine YouTube video, Mitski tells a fan who asks “can I get a free ticket it’s national lesbian day” [sic] that the answer, in short, is “No”, and that the fan will have to take it up with ticketsellers. 

The album is still about Mitski in the world, but it’s about how that affects the artist, not her context. While she does occasionally masquerade as an indie protest artist here, singing, for example, “everyone said don’t go that way / So of course, to that, I said, / I think I’ll go that way”, it’s not quite as tragic or heroic as it has been in the past. The album is still deeply personal, but its subjects are wholly Mitski, her self-regard, and her retreat from the public sphere during her 2019-2021 hiatus.

In its dark warmth the album most resembles her sophomore effort, Retired from Sad, New Career In Business (2013). Its style is pleasantly varied, if occasionally jarring (see the awkward transition into “Heat Lightning”). The songs vary deeply even within their two- or three-minute runtimes, such as when “There’s Nothing Left Here for You” bursts out of pure lyric into volume for half a minute before gently dying away. In some places, she’s gone experimental, sounding Michelle Zauner-like on “Stay Soft” as she sings lyrics like “Open up your heart / like the gates of hell” over a lurking grunge beat. “Should’ve Been Me”, towards the end, is lovingly maximalist.

Illustration by Sophie Benbelaid.

The first half of the album is a bit more organised: “Valentine, Texas”, “Everyone”, and “Heat Lightning” form a neat, summer-night, fever dreamish triptych. This last is the album’s best song, a languid ballad in the dark from the same place as “First Love/Last Spring” and its “peach tree”; here, “trees are swaying in the wind / like sea anemones”. There’s a lot of symbolism of bodies and hearts, and a beautiful vista at the top, where Mitski screams out perhaps the most evocative blooming line, a drawn-out “I surrrrrrender.” When she sings about a “sleeping eyelid of the sky”, there’s an element of magical realism.

“The Only Heartbreaker” is the album’s simplest banger, an echo of Be the Cowboy’s “Nobody”, which is probably the Mitski song you know best. From here, the album moves into a full-throated attempt at reformation, as Mitski sings on “Love Me More”, “I could be a new girl, I will be a new girl.” The only critique I could really level at this is that it winds on a bit too long; I’m not sure I could tell you the difference between “There’s Nothing Left for You” and “I Guess”, although I suspect they’re both growers. 

The closer, “That’s Our Lamp” is the album’s real surprise. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good one. The lyrics are small and twee and cliché, one small-town girl’s song of rejection set to a bizarre, sherbet-tinged disco beat. Here, as on “I Guess,” where she sings “thank you” to a past lover, she’s actually happy. She’s out of the knot. Woe to the Mitski-doomers. Expect memes.

I did enjoy this album and will be listening to it many more times over the coming weeks. Nothing especially blew me away, except maybe the fact that Mitski put this whole journey – and that does feel like the right word – into thirty-two minutes. It’s not a pristine product, and it doesn’t tug the heart quite like some of her previous efforts, but I think I wanted something more comfortable; it is, perhaps more than any other album of hers, its own little world, dark and orange and lush.