Gone from Mitski’s sixth full-length album is much of the mystery and ominous double meanings that have distinguished her career. The through line to Laurel Hell is Mitski’s omnivorous musicality. The album proves her pop potential and, in contrast to her earlier records, discusses darkness openly instead of leaving it lurking in the shadows.
Following the breakout critical success of 2018’s Be the Cowboy, Mitski delivers her most immediate, most accessible, most danceable album yet with Laurel Hell. The clearest ancestor might be Kate Bush’s otherworldly, existential pop anthem “Running Up That Hill.” Or, closer to the root of things, Mitski’s own “Nobody”—its glowing disco pulse underlaid by a vague unsettling notion.
For those who love Mitski’s volatile intensity, Laurel Hell is more challenging to grasp. Be the Cowboy, though it lessens the sharp edges of Mitski’s music, unravels dark and duplicitous stories that trace back to the same impressive lyricism of her previous albums, perhaps with even more intention. Here though, the double meanings come second to a primary purpose. Uncertainty has been emphasized more than unsettling. The same artist that “bet on losing dogs” and longed to “fall like a body from a balcony” is now content to admit herself “the only heartbreaker” who “need[s] you to love me more.” Desperation and doom hardly enter the image.
But Laurel Hill feels distinct from the point in an indie artist’s career where, for personal or professional reasons, they shift toward a more masses-friendly sound. Mitski is too omnivorous to be imagined in one place. Before her solo career she sang with a progressive metal band and has experimented with a broad palette of sounds since from grungy, noise-prone indie rock to spacious orchestrations. Though there’s certainly an undertone here of a shift in her career—follow the trail of songwriting collaborations with Allie X and Dan Wilson, the latter best known for “Someone Like You” or “Closing Time” or … “The Only Heartbreaker”?—there’s also a joy in hearing such a talented musical artist explore this terrain.
Like Be the Cowboy, Laurel Hell ventures further into piano- and synthesizer-led productions. The record could be divided fairly neatly into two categories: the gauzy, hypnotic gentle-burners and the effervescent, disco-tinged synth pop.
“Valentine, Texas”—a titular call back to the opening track, “Texas Reznikoff,” from Mitski’s label debut—begins the album with a gothic murmur that fits into the former category. But it’s an invitation, more exposed than Mitski in the past. “Let’s step carefully into the dark/Once we’re in I’ll remember the way/Who will I be tonight?” It’s the type of quiet song that urges a listener to turn up the volume. When the track kicks in fully, it becomes immersive.
Throughout Laurel Hell, Mitski confronts this darkness openly. The lyrics return to it most explicitly on the syncopated waltz of “Everyone,” where the narrator chooses the direction everyone warns against and leaves “the door open to the dark,” beckoning it, “Come in, come in, whatever you are.”
Mitski credits the album’s title to the Appalachian legend of laurel bushes so dense that a person can wander in and become stuck, unable to escape. There’s a sense on Laurel Hell that Mitski is working to break free from the constraints she feels.
Following a two-year hiatus from the public sphere, “Working for the Knife,” Laurel Hell’s first single, alludes to struggles with success where the singer “used to think I would tell stories/But nobody cared for the stories I had” and she “starts the day lying and ends with the truth.” While Mitski has often shown characters in despair or defeat, this is the most tired her lyrics have sounded. Even on the buoyant ’80s pop climb of “Love Me More” Mitski concludes, “When today is finally done/There’s another day to come/Then another day to come/Then another day to come.”
In promotional material for the album, Mitski says that she wrote the songs for herself most of all.
“I needed love songs about real relationships that are not power struggles to be won or lost,” she says. “I needed songs that could help me forgive both others and myself.”
It’s easy to imagine how the clear-eyed pop of Laurel Hell could inspire that forgiveness and freedom. “The Only Heartbreaker” may be her most straightforward and successfully constructed pop song yet, but elsewhere Mitski brings more of her distinctive touch to the style. “Stay Soft” makes explicit the use of sex as a coping mechanism for pain and uneven power dynamics, a theme she’s explored previously on “Washing Machine Heart” and “Happy.” “Should’ve Been Me” and “That’s Our Lamp” move her syrupy synth pop into a slightly campy musical realm with more than a vague resemblance to ABBA.
On “That’s Our Lamp,” the album’s closing track, Mitski returns to the dark. The most glowing and over-the-top track of the album—with strings and harpsichord conjuring Mitski in the closing moments of a multi-colored ’70s variety show—is also the most conflicted. Mitski sings, “You say you love me/I believe you do,” but despite the joyous musical backdrop, the kick in lifts up as the vocal melody sinks into the admittance that “you just don’t like me.” And it is very clearly an ending. She’s pulled out all the stops musically, but it’s also rooted firmly in the past tense. Mitski has left the apartment of a lover and she’s staring up at their lamp now, but she’s in the darkness: “That’s where you loved me.”
For all the open-hearted optimism of Laurel Hell, Mitski leaves us uncertain. What was all the hope for if it ends with love past and gone? I find myself struggling to finish the album without immediately queuing it up again. It becomes an endless cycle of opening to the darkness, finding the light, and then realizing that, yet again, I’m outside only looking toward the light.