Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz
Laurel Hell was never meant to exist. In June 2019, Mitski Miyawaki announced that a September show in Central Park would be her “last show indefinitely.” “Indefinitely”, she assured fans, did not mean forever, but privately, she had already decided she was quitting the music business. However, she later realized, her recording contract with indie stalwarts Dead Oceans required her to release one more album. Because of this, we now have Mitski’s sixth studio album Laurel Hell – arriving three and a half years after her previous effort; the star-making Be the Cowboy, which elevated her to new levels of fame that most indie singer-songwriters could only dream of.
But what happens when you achieve your dreams only to find out they’re nothing you hoped for or imagined? That’s the uncomfortable question at the heart of Mitski’s latest full-length; where she wrestles with the fallout of fame – and tries to protect herself from it in real-time. “Let’s step carefully into the dark // Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around,” she declares on the atmospheric opener “Valentine, Texas” – coming to grips with the uneasy process of re-entering a life you promised yourself you had left for good.
“Working for the Knife” – the song with which Mitski officially ended her hiatus – is the track that most directly addresses her disaffection with stardom. “I always thought the choice was mine // And I was right, but I just chose wrong,” she admits downbeat, “I start the day lying and end with the truth // That I’m dying for the knife.” On the surface, it’s a pretty standard Mitski song melodically, but small production flourishes – subtle distortion, metallic clangs in the background – reveal themselves with closer attention, and evoke a feeling of suffocation not dissimilar to what Mitski’s lyrics chronicle.
“The Only Heartbreaker” is Laurel Hell’s unmistakable centerpiece; an ’80s-soaked synth-pop gem with an infectious hook. Like Be The Cowboy’s “Nobody”, it takes a simple word or phrase – in this case, “I’ll be the only heartbreaker,” and repeats it over and over again until one has no choice but to confront head-on the sorrow at the heart of Mitski’s words. It’s one of Mitski’s best songs to date – which says a lot in the context of a discography already bursting with highlights.
Elsewhere, Mitski occasionally settles for a mid-tempo churn; where drum machines and synths that bubble – but rarely burst – are employed in place of Mitski’s usual idiosyncrasies. The brooding “Everyone” perpetually hints at a dramatic change of pace that never occurs, while “I Guess” attempts to find strength in its subtlety but ends up collapsing under the weight of its own seriousness.
Thankfully, moments like this prove to be the exception rather than the rule on Laurel Hell – an album that contains plenty of characteristically uncharacteristic quirks. The best of the non-singles, the jaunty “Should’ve Been Me” offers a disarming perspective on an ex who finds himself with someone who looks strikingly similar to our narrator. “It broke my heart, the lengths you went to hold me,” she declares. Focusing her anger on herself, she reflects, “You wanted me, but you couldn’t reach me // I’m sorry it should’ve been me”.
Mitski saves the biggest surprise for last though, with the Abba-indebted “That’s Our Lamp” – that tells of a real-time realization of a relationship’s end (“You say you love me // I believe you // But I walk down and up and down // And up and down this street // ‘Cause you just don’t love me // Not like you used to”). Later on, Mitski is left looking into her and her soon-to-be-ex partner’s bedroom from the outside, honing in on inanimate objects and finding new meaning in the memories they evoke: “That’s our lamp”, “That’s where you loved me.”
The song sounds oddly vibrant given its subject matter, but perhaps that’s the point. “That’s Our Lamp” is as much a meditation on loss as it is a celebration of what was – and a recognition of the bittersweet triumph of realizing when a good thing has ended and when it is time to step boldly on to a new path. Besides, as Mitski’s return to music shows us, sometimes leaving a good thing just means we eventually return stronger than ever.