After the tour for her 2019 album, Be the Cowboy, Mitski announced that she’d be taking an indefinite break from music. Her fans, though considerate, were still eagerly awaiting new content from the rising indie-pop star, so when Mitski made a surprise release of the single “Working For The Knife” last October, paired with a music video, the internet understandably went crazy.
She followed the release with three more spontaneous singles, dropped throughout the end of the year – “The Only Heartbreaker,” “Heat Lightning,” and “Love Me More,” with “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More” accompanied by music videos.
Now in 2022, Mitski dropped her album, Laurel Hell, on February 4th, quickly becoming the best-selling album in America on the week of its release. It’s her 6th full-length studio album, with 11 tracks and a run-time of 32 minutes.
Mitski’s first four LPs showcased an indie-rock influence, with grungy guitar and gritty vocals. Her background in classical piano was also reflected in songs like “Because Dreaming Costs Money, My Dear” and” Wife.” Then her last album, Be the Cowboy, seemed to mark a shift in musical style, as Mitski explored more electronic sounds and leaned into instrumentation, rather than a solely lyrical focus.
Now with Laurel Hell, we see Mitski fully embracing her synth-pop era. Her album screams 80s, but still maintains the signature Mitski style – soaring chords or peppy beats in stark contrast to desperate and gut-wrenching lyrical poetry. She’s also exploring her multimedia storytelling talents through the four new music videos released (the fourth being for “Stay Soft,” released after the album drop). Mitski hasn’t been known for releasing a lot of music videos. Though the ones she does have are fantastic, they weren’t released as consistently, nor with the same amount of videos per album. Each video demonstrates Mitski’s eye for abstraction, horror, and even her knack for modern dance.
With 11 tracks on the album, it’s difficult to believe all of them are equally excellent. In all honesty, there are a few songs that do fall flat, but not to any detriment to the rest of the album – they simply lack a standalone quality. The songs that do stand out, though, do so flawlessly.
“Valentine, Texas” has instantly become one of my favorite openers. It starts slow and simmering – but suddenly, the synthesizer kicks in with a blast of chords. The song captures the beautiful, yet desolate landscape Mitski describes in her lyrics:
Let’s go out to where dust devils are made
By dancing ghosts as they kick up clouds of sand
Where clouds look like mountains
She creates the imagery of this dusty plain, adding sweeping strings to create an expansive feel. Then, in true Mitski style, she takes your mental image and runs with it by mixing in pure melancholy:
Let me watch those mountains from underneath
And maybe they’ll finally float off of me
And finishing it all off with a dissonant chord? Mitski, you genius, you’ve done it again.
Mitski loves thematic disagreement, and in “Stay Soft,” it shows. The song’s lyrical themes are rather dark. She details feelings of abuse–giving everything to an unthankful someone, then becoming closed off in that realization, losing innocence:
Stay soft, get beaten
Only natural to harden up
All this, of course, is paired with head-nodding pop instrumentals. Tricks like these – serenity warped by something darker – are often found in horror media, so it makes sense that the song’s music video follows the genre. In the video, Mitski dwells in a garden of paradise, pruning a flower that’s a nod to Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. But sinister creatures lurk in the darkness–and that cute little flower is getting hungry. “Stay Soft”’s jaunty beat lends itself easily to a video filled with references, dancing monsters, and (SPOILER ALERT) murder.
My personal favorite from the album is “Heat Lightning.” Like “Valentine, Texas,” it has a slow and unmoving synth beat. But the wonderful thing about the song is that it never peaks. After the first chorus, the keyboard chords start to grow, hinting at a crescendo – but then it doesn’t. It’s a beautiful display of restraint, especially when the modern music industry prioritizes hooks and loud beat drops. The song’s monotony works in tandem with the lyrics to create a devastating, resigned feeling:
There’s nothing I can do
Not much I can change
I give it up to you
Every part of the track plays a part in emotionally crushing the listener, without even increasing the volume. The message is gut-wrenchingly clear – she surrenders.
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