After a hiatus from making music and touring, Mitski returns four years later with a new album entitled Laurel Hell, which carries her signature lyrical style while implementing new musical techniques and sounds. Throughout the album, she grapples with ideas of fame and the pressures of performing both on stage and in relationships, focusing on themes of melancholy, grief, and isolation. While the lyrical content is similar to prior releases, she shifts into piano and synth centric music and leaves behind guitar, a focal instrument in her past albums.
The album begins with the soft opener “Valentine, Texas,” introducing the listener to the themes of fame present in the rest of the work. It is a fairly optimistic track for Mitski, one where she hopes her prior ghosts and burdens within the music industry do not come back. This feeling does not last long, as “Working for the Knife” clearly lays out Mitski’s hopelessness from being crushed by the music industry, explaining the reasoning behind her hiatus. The music video shows Mitski performing for an empty audience tirelessly until she collapses on the stage, which is met with applause. While the knife has many potential meanings, at its core the song is about the toils of performing for an audience that engulfs and exploits the performer, a sentiment that continues throughout.
“Stay Soft” displays a sense of vulnerability that could apply to both the music industry and an abusive relationship. In the most surreal and artistic music video she’s released for this album, Mitski lays out the sexual undertones of the piece. This theme is conveyed subtly in the song but the video explicitly depicts Mitski fighting with monsters that rip off her clothes. The monsters’ blond hair and blue eyes represent previous themes of Eurocentric beauty ideals, similar to “Happy” on Puberty 2. Mitski explained to Fader that this song is about “hurt people finding each other, and using sex to make sense of their pain” and how she wants to “write songs about what we actually do, so that we don’t feel alone in them.”
This theme of loneliness and vulnerability continues in “Everyone,” her first slow ballad of the album. Rather than being about vulnerability within a relationship, she expands on this feeling within the music industry. Put over a simple drum beat and light synth, fame is portrayed as a dark figure who pushes her into the spotlight before she is ready and exploits her excitement and joy in making music. These feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are also apparent in “Heat Lightning,” which works as a halfway point for the rest of the album. She takes the metaphor of heat lightning, a storm that occurs too far away to hear thunder but produces a faint flash, to accept what is yet to come and acknowledging she can not change what she does not know will happen. While this song refers to insomnia and the stress that can keep you awake, it encapsulates substantial feelings of uncertainty within life.
The next two songs, “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More,” show a return to Mitski’s common lyrical messages about doomed relationships and both feature upbeat synth to contrast their dark lyrics. “The Only Heartbreaker” relates to the fear of messing up a relationship and taking the blame for every fault. Ultimately, she hurts herself in the end while the other person does nothing. “Love Me More” delves more into the lack of self love she has and how she must rely on someone else to provide it for her. The music industry looms over this song as she notes how she is stuck in a cycle of touring and making music, with no time left to love and care for herself.
“There’s Nothing Left Here for You” is the most similar sounding track to her previous work, reflecting the classic slow songs Mitski puts on her albums towards the end. Although she is progressing into a new sound, "There's Nothing Left Here for You" is analogous to previous ballads, like “Two Slow Dancers” that closes Be The Cowboy. There is a simple synth underlay that builds up briefly before returning to the same quiet and doomed sound. This song pairs well with the prior one, detailing how she has given all her love, to music or someone, and has nothing left to give.
Switching into an 80s-esque pop electronic beat, “Should’ve Been Me” contradicts its cheerful melody with the dark feelings of regret and guilt towards losing someone in a relationship. Similar to “The Only Heartbreaker,” she feels grief about the relationship and believes she did not give as much to the relationship as the other person. “I Guess,” continues this message of being fresh off a breakup and the concern of not knowing how to live your life without them. She brings back the simple synth undertones seen in “There’s Nothing Left Here for You,” which together describe the ending of something you’re not quite ready for.
She ends with “That’s Our Lamp” featuring theatrical synth and violin, reminiscent of a movie’s closing song. She pairs this joyful melody with melancholic lyrics that evoke an old relationship, seeing something that reminds her of that past. She is reminded of how they loved her in that moment, yet the song has a double meaning—it is the only time they loved her.
Laurel Hell shows Mitski changing her sound to reflect a poppier, synthier one. This transition briefly began in her previous album, Be The Cowboy, and will likely continue in her future releases. As she adapts to the more synth-heavy style of the current indie pop world, her messages and themes still mirror classic Mitski writing that has attracted lots of her fans. Her ability to sing about a specific mood of loneliness that is highly relatable makes her stand out from the rest of the indie rock world. Her characteristic sad and gloomy songs are aided by synth, but do not fit the poppier songs as well. It detracts from their emotional message and makes them sound less sincere, working as a distraction from the depressing thoughts Mitski presents in the songs. The slower songs match and flow with the synth, while the upbeat ones expose it more directly to create a gaping contrast. Despite this musical shift, Mitski is still able to provide music for specific complex feelings of darkness and melancholy.
Favorite songs: “Working for the Knife” and “Stay Soft”