“Laurel Hell” Is Mitski’s Sublime 80s-Pastiche Return to Indie


Aanji Sin ’24

Japanese American indie pop singer Mitski is back, and it is indeed just me and her against the world. On Feb. 4, she released her long-awaited sixth studio album Laurel Hell, breaking the singer’s three and a half year long hiatus from music. Her return to the scene has been widely anticipated by indie fans, evidenced in her debut at the top slot of Billboard’s Top Album Sales Chart this past week and all the Be The Cowboy-inspired tattoos on my TikTok FYP from over the last few months.

Laurel Hell is apparently titled after a folk term for forests in the southern Appalachian mountains, where mountain laurel grows so thick and close together that it is impossible to pass through. The blossoms are small and bloom in charming pink and white, but get trapped in their brambles and you might die trying to cut yourself free — a piece of folklore that Mitski has said reflects her struggle trying to reconcile a truly fruitful and satisfying career in music alongside the threat to creativity that is consumerism. The metaphor is a classic Mitski construct (which is to say that I ate it up, she’s a genius, and I want her brain), though I equally enjoy my own initial close reading of the album title: laurel referring to the laurel wreaths bequeathed to heroes and athletes of ancient Greece, indicating all of the successes and praises she’s received during her career, though now her success feels like a hell of her own making.

Whatever way you want to interpret it, this idea of enduring fear and its undercurrent of desire runs deep throughout the entire body of work, in all of its possible forms. On “Working for the Knife,” the first single off of the record, Mitski sings about her misgivings on returning to music, and also the inevitability of it: “I always thought the choice was mine / and I was right, but I just chose wrong.” On the track “I Guess,” a paralyzingly austere piece about looking back at your past, Mitski speaks to a purposefully ambiguous second person “you,” leaving room for a myriad of interpretations in a barely two minute long run: “It’s been you and me since before I was me / Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live.”

She’s able to pair these kinds of crushing lyrics while also invoking the unabashed longing of 80s classics. The record draws heavily on the sound of the decade’s pop rock, filled with the swirling synth resonances of Abba, Ultravox, Vangelis, and a dash of Pat Benatar, while also maintaining those Mitski-certified oblique melodies and dense lyrics (‘sad twerking’ has never been more applicable). The album’s auditory aesthetics culminate with the track “Should’ve Been Me,” a plucky keyboard synth groove reminiscent of Hall & Oates’ song “Maneater,” about a relationship she felt emotionally detached from. “I haven’t given you what you need, / you wanted me but couldn’t reach me,” she sings in between instrumental interludes of uncharacteristic buoyancy. “I’m sorry, it should’ve been me.”

Laurel Hell isn’t your typical Mitski record. In the past, fellow depressed and heartsick indie fans flocked to her music, more specifically her lyrics, to find emotional affinity, the all-consuming, bitter states of being finally articulated by someone who truly understood them. Mitski built her career on those flayed, open-hearted testimonies to her hurts and desires, but fans may have been a little disappointed with the aura of Laurel Hell — it’s a much more emotionally resigned record. It’s a testimony to Mitski’s growth not only as an artist and a performer, but as a person.

Her music is aging with her, and while it might not be as relatable for her typical audience in comparison to the unreserved, guitar-driven yearning of Bury Me at Makeout Creek or the insecurity hidden behind the glittery power chords of Be The Cowboy, Laurel Hell has a magic of its own. It’s simultaneously more melancholy than all the rest, and also the album most likely to make you want to get up and dance.

At first glance, this record’s weight feels a little buried underneath its production, the actual devastation of Mitski’s lyrics shrouded by all that good 80s glitz — and to that I would argue, isn’t that the whole point? Mitski’s return to the music scene was a reluctant and guarded move in its reality, and those misgivings are reflected in her art. Perhaps the purpose of the record is to force us to sit with it and understand her hesitation, to peel back the layers of it, get to its raw, blistered core, rewind the tape over and over until the song you thought you knew sounds entirely different. And really, have you ever heard of anything more quintessentially Mitski?

Image Source: The Guardian

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