Photo: Cover for Mitski’s album “Laurel Hell“
by Maddie Qualls, editor
Indie-rock artist Mitski, popularized for her melancholic and heart-felt music, refuses to be confined in one genre with Laurel Hell, her newest album. A year after the release of her 2018 album, Be the Cowboy, Mitski left social media and took a break from music, but her label contract required a sixth album. The album she produced is packed with emotion, which is emphasized by the skillful technical elements.
Mitski broke her three year hiatus with the release of the track “Working for the Knife” in October, and the full album came out in February. I have heard a lot of discourse about whether or not Laurel Hell lives up to her past masterpieces, but ultimately I think it does.
The main complaint I’ve heard is about the drastic change in genre, tone, and sound. This argument is baseless because, in reality, throughout Mitski’s six studio albums, she has consistently utilized diverse styles. To equate her with the solemn sound exemplified by “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” for which she is largely known, is reductive. Her discography contains an incredible amount of range, from the slow and reflective “Last Words of a Shooting Star” to the intense and passionate “Brand New City” to the upbeat and jubilant “Strawberry Blond.” This album is a continuation of that diversity of sounds.
However, this album does make use of some techniques that set it apart from Mitski’s previous work. Multiple songs have an ‘80s-inspired, synth-pop sound to them. “Stay Soft,” “The Only Heart Breaker,” “Love Me More,” “Should’ve Been Me” and “That’s Our Lamp” all feel as though they could be on the New Wave playlist my dad listens to. I actually really enjoy the use of this style. It has had polarizing effects on fans, but a Mitski song isn’t bad just because it doesn’t make you cry, as they have been known to do. And when you look past the danceable tune of these songs, you’ll see that the lyrics still contain Mitski’s classic pensive and emotional stories. “Should’ve Been Me” really sticks out to me because the vivace tempo juxtaposes the emotive sentiment of the song, represented by the lyric: “It must be lonely loving someone trying to find their way out of a maze.”
Also, even with the addition of new elements in this album, Laurel Hell still has various songs in the tear-jerking, poignant mode that Mitski is renowned for, including “Valentine, Texas,” “Heat Lightning,” “Everyone” and “I Guess.” While still continuing her typical sound, Mitski introduced new themes in this album. She captured the emotion of reflection but also weaved in a narrative of growth. The opening track, “Valentine, Texas,” tells a story of discarding the personas she has feigned in past relationships to embrace vulnerability and explore love. The slow, soft beginning transitions into a more dramatic, vibrant tune, with heavy piano chords. The development of the sound mirrors the tale of personal progress.
Mitski is a master of crafting melodies that emanate the precise sentiments expressed in her lyrics, which is one of the many things that made Laurel Hell great. This album is highly reflective of Mitski’s experiences over the past few years, especially regarding her relationship with her career and her personal development. My only slight criticism is that the album is not super cohesive as it switches between slow and upbeat songs, but at the same time, I can appreciate the variety. Overall, I really loved Laurel Hell, which you would definitely be able to tell if you looked at my top tracks this month. I highly recommend this album: You can dance and cry to it, even at the same time.