Arts and Entertainment

Mitski’s Emergence From the Darkness

Mitski’s return to music showcases a relatable depth and complexity.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

After nearly four years on hiatus, Mitski has returned as a new artist, exploring sonic territory with “Laurel Hell,” an album that delivers the woes of confinement through a vessel of luscious Synth-pop. Timeless teenaged themes of conformity, healing, and growth permeate the album. The album was highly anticipated and has subsequently been met with conflicting reviews.

In the opening track, “Valentine, Texas,” Mitski’s echoing whispers invite listeners to “step carefully into the dark” with her. The listeners witness the inner world of a drained artist. Halfway through the song, Mitski becomes rejuvenated. Her mellow and slow-paced singing rapidly accelerates into an explosion of layered keyboard that instantaneously enthralls the listener into “Laurel Hell.”

At first, the album feels disjointed. “Should’ve Been Me” fuses a buoyant melody with lyrics that tell the story of never being fully seen as a person. The combination of these conflicting characteristics feels disorienting because Mitski presents two seemingly distinct narratives: one of reconciling the separation of a romantic partner and the other of a commentary on artistic burnout. Upon further dissection, these experiences live in parallel as a confession of Mitski’s relationship with the music industry. After Mitski released “Be the Cowboy” in 2018 (her most popular album, with hit songs like “Nobody,” “Me and My Husband,” and “Washing Machine Heart”), she took a break from her career to recover her passion for music. Mitski’s relationship with her music mirrors a romantic relationship: one which is both satiating and devouring. Just like the scorned longing for that love, Mitski’s record label contractually obligated her to return for another album.

She explores professional discourse on “Working for the Knife.” Metallic guitar pairs with the distant clanking of percussion as Mitski communicates the effect of the restraining grasp of capitalism in her life. She speaks to the societal pressure to comply with the lyrics, “Used to think I’d be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change / That I’m living for the knife.” Her words are notoriously truthful.

The prominent synths of “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More” are a pivot in the album’s mood. In both tracks, the cadence of Mitski’s voice gains energy as the chorus appears. Rhythmic drums and fast-paced piano create a lively symphony. However, the playful dance tunes are actually a facade for hidden themes. In “Love Me More,” Mitski yearns for love that immerses her completely: “I need you to love me more / Love me more, love me more / Love enough to drown it out.”

The production of “Laurel Hell” is much more refined and fluid than any of Mitski’s previous projects; it has been scrubbed clean of Mitski’s signature jagged fervor. While it can still be acknowledged that Mitski has created an euphonic piece of art, it’s clear that she is taking less risks with the production style of the album. “Laurel Hell” conforms to ‘80s inspired electronic undertones that have been recently repopularized by artists like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, music that can feel derivative at times. After the flaming intensity of the preceding tracks, “Everyone” offers an ambient breather, but its production is too bland to hold the listeners’ focus.

The final two tracks, “I Guess” and “That’s Our Lamp,” close the album with contrasting outlooks. “I Guess” represents an end that is accompanied by hesitance and reluctance. Mitski’s voice in this track sounds plaintive: she draws out each of her syllables to an overwhelming extent, almost as if she doesn't want to fade away. The subtle, hypnotic keyboard serves to highlight the melancholic lyrics. Mitski croons, “I guess this is the end / I’ll have to learn / To be somebody else.” Reluctantly, Mitski sheds her identity. This leads perfectly to the next track, in which the end gives birth to a new persona. “That's Our Lamp” is the most triumphant track of the album. The lyrics speak to separation and abandonment, yet strings and synth horns contrast the loneliness of the lyrics. Mitski repeats, “That's where you loved me.” These nostalgic references bring a sense of acceptance and closure to the piece despite the hints of grief. While her sadness is still present, it is not terrorizing or all-encompassing. Mitski has learned to live with love despite her heartache.

Historically, many have idolized Mitski for her “sad girl” trope. Her most viral songs have all been the epitome of desolation and raw sensitivity. Some fans have excessively pinned this single lens onto Mitski, refusing to perceive her as being multidimensional. This completely dehumanizes Mitski as a person and disvalues all aspects of her identity beyond her music. In “Laurel Hell,” Mitski is finally able to embrace a multifaceted self. She emerges as a performance artist on the project’s accompanying music videos, suggesting that the music should be felt and not just heard. Ultimately, “Laurel Hell” ignites undeniable feelings of solace. The lyrics are purposefully vague and remain open for interpretation. It is synchronistic that Mitski’s music has been released now, as we struggle to define a post-pandemic reality. We oddly find clarity in the dark, complex, and undefined space Mitski creates in “Laurel Hell.” In this vein, Mitski offers a relatability that is appealing to many. We can follow Mitski into an undiscovered place where new identities are formed as old ones are abandoned.