When I first heard Mitski’s sixth album, I had two thoughts: laurel light, when it was released in early February: “I love how emotionally crushing this is!” and “That sounds like good music to work out!”
laurel hell continues Mitski’s development of a sound that first began to coalesce on their fifth album, 2018’s Be the cowboy. Their music increasingly sounds like dancing wildly alone on the seashore while a hurricane descends on everything. This is exactly the kind of music I like to play at the gym, but your mileage will certainly vary. (I just want my life to be accompanied by sad women.)
A great example of Mitski’s way of blending dread and synth music that exists in a weird Venn diagram hybrid of 80’s pop and the score for a David Lynch film just take a look laurel hell‘s leadoff single “Working for the Knife”.
The themes of Mitski’s songs are almost always caught up in her circumstances, consistent with the artist’s frequently expressed concerns about her level of fame. The kind of eclectic, ambitious art-pop Mitski deals in has rarely garnered large audiences, but Mitski’s cult following continues to grow with each new release. laurel hell actually sold enough physical copies to make the top 10 in Billboard album sales.
The idea of being trapped is everywhere in Mitski’s music if you go looking. One of her best-known songs, such as 2016’s “Your Best American Girl,” is about growing up as a non-white woman (Mitski is Japanese-American) in a country whose visions of femininity are hopelessly skewed towards whiteness. Even a seemingly more wistful track like 2018’s “Me and My Husband” turns out, on more listens, to be one about a woman trapped in a troubled marriage that she keeps telling herself is just plain awesome or about a woman caught up in the idea of how she needs to be married (preferably to a man) in order to have a fulfilling life.
The ambiguity surrounding “Husband” underscores another reason to love Mitski’s music: None of her songs have a simple meaning. They all reveal new nuances on additional listening. So take everything I say to a specific song Laurel Light is about with a grain of salt. I am sure by the time their next album comes out I will have completely changed my mind.
But at first the songs blush Laurel Light seem to explore traps that are enormous and existential. My favorite song on the album, “Everyone,” starts out easy enough with Mitski singing about trying to find her own way on a subtle synth and drum machine loop. But as the song goes on, she discovers that the other path she has trodden is just another path to be co-opted by the world she was trying to escape from. The system is ubiquitous and any ability to go beyond its limits is illusory.
As the song’s final couplet, she sings “Sometimes I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again” and the track explodes with shimmering piano tones. It sounds like a revelation, but look at the lyrical revelation that accompanies it. (Also, the title “Everyone” mirrors the title of 2018’s “Nobody,” which is one of their biggest hits. The mirroring seems to refer to me.)
Traps in romantic and sexual relationships also abound laurel hell. For example, The Only Heartbreaker is told from the point of view of someone who is constantly blamed for things that go wrong in a relationship. Still, it carries empathy for the idea that this person may have taken on the mantle of “the one who takes the blame.” Or “Stay Soft” traces a sexual relationship between two people who treat each other badly but always come back to each other. They find something in each other that they can’t find anywhere else, even if that something is toxic or broken.
“Stay Soft” addresses the other sneakily brilliant aspect laurel hell: It’s absurdly danceable, but in a “dance alone in your bedroom” kind of way, not in a “go to the club” kind. (On the other hand, if anyone wants to play a club set built around Mitski, let me know. I’ll be there.)
If you’ve ever watched Mitski perform, she occasionally pauses to dance, but her dance takes the form of a kind of full-body release, as if she’s churning out every emotion she can think of in the only way she knows how. (You can see a bit of it at the end of the “Working for the Knife” video above.) The songs continue laurel hell often capture that sense of release, and when I say they’re danceable, I mean they invite you to cast out every emotion you can think of in the only way you know how. When you’re trapped, sometimes the only way out is the release that comes from seemingly detaching your mind from your body. At best, Mitski’s music and dance reflect this idea.
laurel hell is not that different from Be the cowboy as Mitski’s previous albums were of each other. She’s a deeply eclectic artist who draws from a variety of influences, from classical music to Björk, so she’ll never repeat herself, but it’s easier to see the line between her last two albums than between, say, 2013 Retired from sad, new career in business, and 2014s Bury me at Makeout Creek.
But the decision to delve further into this particular area makes me suspect that Mitski has found something worth exploring and the songs on it laurel hell are more than enough evidence that she’s probably right about that. Somewhere out there, existential doom awaits us all. We cannot escape it, either as individuals or as a species. But until then, we can find a cathartic release from processing sadness, fear, and pain.
laurel hell can be streamed on all major music platforms. There is also a deluxe edition available on vinyl. For more recommendations from the world of culture, see A good thing Archive.