By: Grace Koennecke, Columns Editor
Dead Oceans; 2022
Key tracks: “Working for the Knife,” “Stay Soft,” “The Only Heartbreaker,” “Love Me More,” “I Guess”
Nobody was sure if Mitski would ever return to the music scene after the success of 2018’s Be the Cowboy. In an interview with Apple Music, she said, “I think I was just tired, and I felt like I needed a break and I couldn’t do it anymore,” when reflecting on what led her to temporarily retire in 2019. Luckily, Mitski realized she couldn’t give up music completely, saying that not making music at all made her feel even worse mentally.
This led to the creation of Laurel Hell, where it seems like Mitski is back, but not completely. There are songs full of doubt, shame and remorse that all exhibit a darkness that the singer has not been able to quite let go of. The album almost acts as a warning that she could disappear again, even if it did cause her distress the first time. However, there are lighter moments throughout where the feelings of love and attraction are on full display, alluding to new relationships and avenues in Mitski’s life.
Laurel Hell begins on a chilling, cold-hearted note with songs like “Valentine, Texas” and “Working for the Knife.” In particular, “Working for the Knife” uses very pointed symbolism or “the knife” to describe those in power in the music industry. These people dictate the art musicians can create, and with Mitski being a female musician, she alludes to this being an extremely common occurrence in her career. She wishes of having more creative freedom and that people would actually listen to the messages in her music. Mitski also details her fear of the world moving on without her and how exhausted she is with being a musician. Overall, the song is a reflection of her career and the struggles of being in music as a woman.
As the album progresses, “Stay Soft” provides an upbeat, 80s-like synth sound where Mitski sings of being attracted to someone. Her tone is for once confident, where she expresses love for her self-image, which is surprising after such a dark opening. In this song, Mitski wants this person of interest to open up to her, since they are usually cold towards her. It’s a track about unrequited love and not being able to read someone you’re crushing on, but not letting this stop you.
“The Only Heartbreaker” once again has the 80s tone that Mitski has embraced throughout this project, with a nice use of percussion in the intro. The title is a nod to Mitski herself, fully believing that she’s the one who makes all the mistakes in any relationship. It’s also her mindset of only seeing the goodness in her lover, while only seeing the negative in herself. She claims that this person is very forgiving and open towards her insecurities, but that they still don’t help rid her of them. While this song is noteworthy, it’s also too short, and Mitski could’ve elaborated more on just how she was feeling at this time in her life.
Towards the middle of the album, the song “Love Me More” is Mitski trying to manifest a new version of herself. It’s repetitive in the use of 80s-like production yet again, but the lyrics are striking. Lines such as “How do other people live? / I wonder how they keep it up?” are the singer wondering what ordinary life is like, as her profession is far from normal. She thinks that music is holding her back, taking a toll on her mental health. What makes this song interesting is the double meaning it holds. It could be seen as a plea for music fans to love and appreciate her as an artist more, or could be Mitski begging to experience more love from her partner. With a haunting tone, this song also is another warning that Laurel Hell may signal the end of her career in the future.
One of the final tracks is “I Guess,” a song that is depressing in its nature, but also a thank you to those who have supported Mitski. “I guess this is the end / I’ll have to learn / To be somebody else” is another allusion to the potential end of her career. She talks about the relationship between her and her fans and how she has struggled to live beyond being a musician. Even though the music industry hasn’t been good to her, Mitski is grateful for the fan base that has grown from the beginnings of her career. She thanks all the people who have supported her at the end, signaling the last hoorah possibly for a while, as not even Mitski knows what the future holds.
Laurel Hell is a flawed and deeply concerning album, with constant reminders throughout that Mitski may never make music again. Disappointingly, many of the songs sound the same and the similar lyrics and connotations all get mixed together amongst the 11 tracks. Yet, its standouts are powerful and jarring. Mitski is unafraid to let listeners know the realities of the music industry, nor is she embarrassed to admit the insecurities she’s faced because of it. Overall, the album may not be Mitski at her most self-assured or most creative, but it is still a welcome comeback after a four-year hiatus.