Mitski: Laurel Hell - Album Review
Album of the year so far? Easily.
It's impossible to overstate how different the expectations surrounding Laurel Hell are compared to any of Mitski's previous albums. If 2018's Be the Cowboy was a big step forward to fame for her, Laurel Hell is practically a trebuchet. With tracks like Washing Machine Heart and Strawberry Blond achieving viral success, an upcoming stadium tour with Harry Styles, and becoming the #1 artist on music data site Last.fm, her new album is released to her biggest audience yet. On one hand, I wonder what people want from Mitski at this point in her career: she's already given us five classic albums; what more could us as fans need? On the other hand: Laurel Hell exceeds all hopes I had for the album. It's a beautiful record that stands among the best of her career, and it cements Mitski as one of the best songwriters of all time.
While Laurel Hell is a departure in some ways from Mitski's signature sound, one consistent across all of her records is the high quality standard. Ask any three fans what their favourite Mitski album is, and I imagine you'd get three different answers. With that in mind, reaction to Laurel Hell was always going to be divisive. With such lofty expectations placed upon Mitski, it was inevitable she would fall short in some critics' eyes. I'd argue that such expectations were unfair: it's unreasonable to expect her to make Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Part 2, almost ten years on. Every album for her has continued her evolution in sound, and she was never going to re-hash any of her previous glories. That being said, some of her hallmark traits are retained. For the first time since Retired From Sad, New Career In Business, the piano returns as one of the most prominent instruments. The descending refrains of tracks like Everyone and Should've Been Me are simply gorgeous, the latter of which practically glistens, the bouncy, danceable music acting as a perfect counterpoint to the tragic lyrics.
Everything kicks off with the phenomenal opener, Valentine, Texas. Despite being compared to some of her previous opening tracks - namely Texas Reznikoff and Geyser - it carves its own niche for itself perfectly, with cinematic lyrics matching the widescreen production, all synth drone and massive guitar and piano lines. "I'll show you who my sweetheart's never met," sings Mitski, setting the scene for an album that feels more vulnerable, less filtered in some ways, than Be the Cowboy. It's a beautiful song with some of her finest lyrics to date. With the scene set by these clouds that look like mountains, dancing ghosts and dust devils, the album gives way to the incredible lead single Working for the Knife, which may be my favourite track on the album. At once a scathing critique of capitalism's impact on making art, and a vivid description of the artist's own interactions with media, it's both one of the best songs of last year and one of the best Mitski tracks to date.
The centrepiece of the album is formed by the two big pre-release singles, The Only Heartbreaker and Love Me More, both of which work better in the full context of the album. The former is notable for being the only co-written song in her whole catalogue, and while it took me off guard as a single, it fits perfectly in the middle of the album, mixing tragedy with dancefloor-ready pop in a way that Robyn would be proud of, much like Nobody before it. Love Me More is the pop song of the year so far - it's got a colossal hook, and is also weirder than it lets on, from the Mike Oldfield-esque ostinatos, to the resonant percussion. Both songs are 80s throwbacks but done in Mitski's own style. They never feel derivative, instead transcending her influences to create something more.
While the record definitely charts out new ground for Mitski, there's clear influential touchstones here, from the Velvet Underground-esque slow burn of single Heat Lightning, to the Wendy Carlos synths that open both Valentine, Texas and There's Nothing Left For You and add to the cinematic atmosphere. Elsewhere, the sparse I Guess harks back to Lush-era Mitski by way of an LCD Soundsystem ballad, and the closing That's Our Lamp ends things on a bubbly danceable high, the bassline proving an instrumental highlight of an album full of them. It's as musically adventurous as always, with new layers of instrumentation revealing themselves on subsequent listens, be that the grungy distorted guitars of The Only Heartbreaker or the graceful strings of Should've Been Me.
While some people will undoubtable see Laurel Hell as Mitski's "pop album", she proves that that's no bad thing: Laurel Hell is, track-for-track, as good an album as Mitski has ever released. It's only been a week from release and I've already fallen in love with the record; I have no doubt that I'll only grow more attached to these songs with time. It's almost a cop out to say this, but words can't do this album justice. Listen to this album free of any expectations, and hear an incredible record by an incredible artist. Album of the year so far? Easily.
Highlight tracks: Working for the Knife, Love Me More, Everyone, Heat Lightning
Key lyric: I left the door open to the dark, I said "come in, come in, whatever you are" / But it didn't want me yet
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Follow them on Twitter.