Courtesy of Dead Oceans

February 10, 2022

‘Laurel Hell’ – A Discovery of the Reasons to Live for the Knife

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In today’s musical landscape, it’s strange to hear that an artist would choose to experiment with pop music. Instead, so many discussions revolve around pop artists aiming to diversify into folk (Lorde’s Solar Power), rock (Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power) and R&B (Ariana Grande’s Positions). After the release of her album Be the Cowboy in 2018, indie rock singer-songwriter Mitski chose to take a hiatus to “find another life.” In the early months of the pandemic, however, Mitski announced an eventual return. 

Thus, on Laurel Hell, her sixth studio album, Mitski does the unexpected, entering the realm of synth-pop with the signature ferocity of her musical penmanship. This shift into synth-pop isn’t the result of a label’s wishes, but the artist’s choice herself. Mitski continues to work with her longtime collaborator and producer Patrick Hyland, but this time to craft a new and more radio-friendly sound than her previous work. This doesn’t necessarily come out of left field, as her 2018 single “Nobody” deviated from her signature indie style into the realm of pop. Nonetheless, Laurel Hell marks a new step for Mitski.

Echoes of the younger and more turbulent artist remain throughout Laurel Hell: the otherworldliness of her melodic ambition, the heart-wrenching lyrics, her assured vocal presence. The album opens just like any other by Mitski, with a soft synth pad and her warm vocal tones enrapturing the ears of the listener on “Valentine, Texas.” The line “Who will I become tonight?” sets the lyrical tone of the album, introducing the listener to an artist in a state of metamorphosis. Midway through the song, we are brashly introduced to the artist’s newest musical persona: an elusive synth-pop beast. 

Conceptually, the album explores the uncharted territories of pop lyric writing, those which examine our relationships through a new lens. As Mitski described in an interview with Apple Music’s Matt Wilkinson, “…A prevailing narrative in pop music is that of the good guy and the bad guy.” On Laurel Hell, she ventures to conjure an answer to the question of what happens when the protagonist of a songwriting narrative is not necessarily our good guy. 

Laurel Hell is an album of musical discontinuity, which makes for an often jarring but more engaging listen. With a modest runtime of 33 minutes over 11 tracks, it features songs that are pleasantly short and to the point. The track listing jerks listeners from sad ballads to upbeat pop gems in the blink of an eye in moments like the transition from the somber “Heat Lightning” to the peppy “The Only Heartbreaker,” my two favorite songs off the album. With transitions this abrupt, you may find yourself wishing to linger in one of her two worlds (indie balladry or Europop sheen) just a little bit longer — especially since she explores both so well. 

In the world of balladry, Mitski develops an eagle’s eye view of her turmoil, showing the ability to write about her problems with greater experience under her belt. In one of her signature songwriting tricks, “There’s Nothing Left Here For You” builds to a heart-wrenching anti-climax, which makes the listener feel pulled down into the lows accompanying an ending relationship. Conversely, in the other world, Mitski discovers a new side of herself, a self-assured pop phenom whose ABBA inspirations shine through. On her new single “Love Me More,” Mitski effortlessly embraces the ‘80s aesthetic dominating today’s pop with open arms.

Regardless of the world she chooses to explore and the manner in which she moves from one to the other, she remains anchored by her lyrics, which contain more astute and reflective observations than ever before. The second verse of “Heat Lightning” contains some of her best storytelling: “Heat lightning / Watch it from my doorstep / Sleeping eyelid of the sky / Flutters in a dream.” Rather than encouraging her listeners to drown in her sorrows with her, she is giving us romantic advice, analyzing all of her transgressions instead of succumbing to them. Perhaps none of this would be possible without her hiatus, a choice which she chronicles on “Working for the Knife.” In the song, the knife resembles her relationship with public reception to her music, which ends with a discovery that instead of “working for the knife,” she was living for it. This profound discovery was one we can all be happy about, as it seems like her time away allowed her to refine the sounds and emotions she explored on Be the Cowboy. This time around, Mitski is fueled less by anger and frustration than by the passion she has for exploration, both in relationships and in music.

PJ Brown is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]