Dead Oceans · February 4, 2022
The world is cruel, sad, dark, and dreary — and for the longest time, this is how 30-year-old indie-rock artist Mitski Miyawaki’s work was perceived. Over her massive rise during quarantine, Mitski embodied the persona of sadness and loneliness to many. However, as we all changed through quarantine, so did she. With the release of her album Laurel Hell, Mitski shows that she’s more than just the quintessential “indie sad girl,” and that just like her music, she’s complex and multifaceted.
Ever since Mitski’s debut in college, one thing has remained consistent: her miraculous ability to change her sound. As she’s grown, so has her sound; as she’s matured, so has her writing. Filled with meaning and story, each and every album feels like an immersion into someone’s world. Her debut album Lush deals with her struggle with beauty and how she holds onto it despite how it hurts her. Be The Cowboy showcases her newfound loneliness in stardom. Laurel Hell, however, feels uniquely Mitski’s.
After disappearing for three years and announcing she was done with music, Mitski arose like a phoenix, surprising fans in the month of October 2021 with a new single. With stunning visuals, gut-wrenching lyrics, and synths galore, Mitski was back. Song by song, piece by piece, fans surged at her new content like vultures at a carcass. Soon, however, people began realizing that something was different. A strong change in sound is common for Mitski, but this change was more than just auditory. This was Mitski’s story, her quarantine journey, one that could not be misconstrued or melted down into something easily palatable.
As Mitski opens up Laurel Hell with “Valentine, Texas” she announces that she’s once again back in the dark, the twisted and dark business that she swore to leave three years ago — “Let’s step carefully into the dark, once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around.” Opening the horrors that lay behind the curtain, Mitski continues with the harrowing “Working for the Knife,” putting into question whether we, the fans, were the ones who put her into this wretched position. The journey was no longer ours to control; Mitski was the conductor and we were all in for a ride.
After captivating the listener with dark and entrancing words, Mitski soothes her lyrics to introduce the first major theme in this album: vulnerability within a relationship. In “Stay Soft,” Mitski uses double entendres to sex like “you stay soft, get beaten, only natural to harden up” as a means to show her need to feel vunerable — not only her, but her ache for her partner to be vulnerable as well. Following this, Mitski introduces the second theme: the claustrophobic feeling that comes with fame. In a further attempt to spell it out, Mitski names this track “Everyone,” the evil twin of her most popular song “Nobody” from her album Be the Cowboy. Rather than a panic attack that comes from feeling alone in the world, Mitski is now brought to her knees by the overwhelming feeling that she has fans everywhere. “Take it all, whatever you want,” she exclaims in anguish.
As the midpoint of the album, Mitski takes a break from this twisted ride with the song “Heat Lightning”. Described by the artist herself as the thoughts running nightly due to her insomnia, this track takes a direct look into darkness in her mind. We see her anxieties on full display with similar lyrics to “A Burning Hill” from her album Puberty 2. She can sense that a storm is coming, but she can’t do anything about it. She’s anxious and scared still, and with such a beautifully written track we are reminded once again that, despite her status, Mitski is human, frighteningly so.
As “Heat Lightning” ends, we go through a captivating three run track, where the line between Mitski and narrator are blurred. Employing her more classic storytelling, she shows us a mini narrative of someone unhappy in her relationship. Through the bright disco pop style, it’s hard to notice the sad underlying lyrics the narrator expresses. In “The Only Heartbreaker,” we watch as the narrator punishes herself for every mistake, where, following this, in “Love Me More” the narrator is unfulfilled with her relationship. She begs her partner to give her more and more love as a means to drown out doubts, uncertainties, and anxieties — but as we see in “There’s Nothing Left for You,” it was all for naught. With all the mistakes she made, all the begging she did, she gave everything and it was not enough. “So go on to that sweetheart’s door,” Mitski says, “Give her all the love you saved for it.” At the end of the masterfully written three-track run, we enter the final run of the album with the eye-opening track “Should’ve Been Me.”
While it was difficult in the previous run to understand whether or not it was Mitski who was narrating, “Should’ve Been Me” gives listeners clarity with her first use of personal pronouns since “The Only Heartbreaker.” She is no longer separated from the situation; she’s the center now, dealing with grief that comes with a post-breakup heartbreak. As she mourns for her relationship, her ex is comically treating his new partner (who looks just like her) perfectly. She comes to terms in “I Guess,” where she accepts this despite all the tears. Finally, in “That’s Our Lamp”, like any inflicted scar, she reminisces on how this pain was inflicted, and how every time she touches it, it fades just a little bit more.
While Laurel Hell may not be Mitski’s most lyrical album, it is her most personal one, and it shows. Even the album itself shows the quarantine process, with many clashing songs in tone and in sound — but isn’t that exactly how we all developed? In the midst of the total darkness the world was plunged into, Laurel Hell shines a light by taking us through Mitski’s journey, showing that we don’t have to navigate the darkness alone.