When Mitski came off the tour in support of 2018’s Be The Cowboy, everything was falling apart. Not just the world around her, which was experiencing its own strange kind of disintegration, but her own surroundings as well. The tour had turned into a slog, and music was just work. If something didn’t change soon, the walls were going to close in.
It seems almost impossible that the apocalyptic and cynical Laurel Hell was made before the global pandemic really kicked into high gear, but it’s true: almost all of the songs were written in the immediate wake of Be the Cowboy, and Laurel Hell is most explicitly a reflection of how Mitski’s life changed in the wake of that album’s success. But whether it was good luck or bad, the album also uncannily happens to reflect the current landscape it eerily appropriate ways.
Sonically, Laurel Hell is mostly industrial and electronic, with very little of the guitar hero histrionics that least coloured some of Mitski’s pervious work. In fact, there’s almost on guitar at all on Laurel Hell, which is a bold move. Instead, there are drum machines, keyboards, looped beats, disco bass lines, and tons of processed noise. It’s like being stuck inside an abandoned steel mill where every echo gets sampled and tuned to the album’s specific pitch.
The imagery is almost as brutal as the clanging drums and icy synths. Opening track ‘Valentine, Texas’ paints a nightmarish picture of a creature with “wet teeth, shining eyes glimmering”. But this figure is very much human, and it sets the stage for the listener to enter a world of dark and strange beauty. ‘Heat Lightning’ is as foreboding as Mitski has ever been, seeing the coming storm with “trees… swaying in the wind like sea anemones”.
Everything I’ve said makes Laurel Hell seem like the least fun album of the year, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Tracks like ‘The Only Heartbreaker’ and ‘That’s Our Lamp’ are positively dance floor ready, and even if they’re playing with negative themes, it doesn’t mean that Mitski is actually letting them keep her down. Laurel Hell is an album about rising above the muck, and it’s most simply stated in ‘Everyone’ as Mitski sings: “Everyone said ‘Don’t go that way’ / So of course to that I said ‘I think I’ll go that way’.”
Every time the album seems like it’s going to get lost in the moroseness, there’s an uplifting follow up filled with optimism and biting wit. ‘Working for the Knife’ and its stark takedown of uncreative monotony is immediately countered with ‘Stay Soft’ and its pleas to “open up your heart like the gates of Hell”.
Later on, ‘There’s Nothing Left For You’ has its haunting keyboard lines subsequently replaced by the uplifting lines of, “You can touch fire / You can fly”, and then out of nowhere comes the jarringly jaunty ‘Should’ve Been Me’, which inverts the style of ‘There’s Nothing Left For You’ by pairing light music with sobering lyrics such as: “Well I went through my list of friends and found / I had no one to tell / Of this overwhelming clean feeling”. Just when you think you’ve got the style of Laurel Hell figured out, it switches up once again.
Ultimately, Laurel Hell might sound like a dour, self-conscious, stark, and introspective record — but That’s because it is, but it’s also affecting, achingly beautiful, and celebratory. I have a strange feeling that Laurel Hell probably isn’t going to match the acclaim that came with Be The Cowboy, nor is it going to age as well. At least not on first listen. But I’m ready to call Laurel Hell Mitski’s best album to date, if for no other reason than because once all the surprise and novelty is worn off, this album still feels like the most unique and uncompromising work that I’ve ever heard from the singer-songwriter.
Just because she’s going outside her normal sound or pushing boundaries doesn’t mean that she’s alienating anybody, though. Far from it, in fact. Laurel Hell invites you to trudge through the wasteland, relating to the trials and tribulations while being an equal part of the triumphs. Some might focus on the sombre setting without realising that the album is actually about escaping from that place, especially if the feeling of liberation doesn’t follow. If Be The Cowboy was about transcending the world by being yourself, Laurel Hell is about surviving when reality kicks. It’s not as heartwarming, but it’s incredibly vital, and because of that Mitski has created her most important album yet.