ALBUM REVIEW: Mitski, Laurel Hell
The term “mid” gets thrown around these days far too often, in my personal opinion. Particularly when it comes to artpop and hyperpop icons like St. Vincent, Fiona Apple, Shygirl, FKA twigs, etc., the bar is held SO HIGH. Their album covers and cycles are simultaneously memed and worshiped for good reason. It’s pretty much the most consistently great subculture of music outside of underground rap, and that’s because the fans are all so meticulous about who they let in the circle. “Tough crowd” as they say, and right now, Mitski is receiving the brunt of that reaction. They’re calling her MIDski and calling her new album Be The Cowboy 2, a winking jab at the continued ‘80s sonic palette from her last record. Well, I’m here just like I was on Whole Lotta Red release day to say, stop being so reactionary and open your present.
Is there a song on here as effortlessly great and poppy as “Nobody”? Perhaps not. Is Laurel Hell as experimental and vignette-like as her opus Puberty 2, quite the opposite. This is without a question Mitski’s most accessible record to date, which many people are mistaking for being a downgrade. While Puberty 2 is her very best, I personally enjoy this more than Be The Cowboy. That album had one too many songs that felt like unfinished sketches, particularly “Come into the Water” and “Blue Light”, that were too slow and short for their own good. Despite it only being 32 minutes long, each track feels like it could be a single. Now even by those standards, not every track is a hit. However, it sounds like all the isolation she has been doing has allowed her to craft each track with the care they require.
Our first taste of Laurel Hell was the unassuming “Working For The Knife”, which our contributor Ibe correctly assessed as a “great reprise” that is a “moody mix of synths, pianos, acoustic and slide guitars”. In just over 2 minutes, Mitski builds and destroys an entire world. I take this song to be a commentary on the label and fan pressure to put out new music; creativity becomes a chore that “start[s] the day high, but ends so low”. As per usual, she is deeply personal, but the feelings are more pointed and direct than I’ve ever heard before in her music. Be The Cowboy is Channel Orange, Puberty 2 is the scrapbooked Endless, and this is Blonde, where she is transferring ideas right from her head to your headphones. Laurel Hell is a crowd pleaser, with high flying singles like “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More” that come right out of the Bryan Adams, Rick Springfield and Flashdance playbook. If everyone is going back to the ‘80s, I’m happy that Mitski is there for quality control purposes.
“Stay Soft” has an opening bass line that reminds me a lot of Caroline Polachek’s much-praised “Bunny Is A Rider”, but it gradually evolves into a superior song. “Open up your heart/Like the gates of Hell” gives me Midsommar vibes, and that aura is solidified with the strange but well-shot music video. On “Everyone”, she gets existential, ruminating on the massive chances and risks she took to pursue a career that most people wouldn’t dream of. “And I left the door open to the dark/I said, ‘Come in, come in, whatever you are/But it didn’t want me yet” is a line that makes me wonder if she is referencing her discography. She has been making music since 2012, even though many people were first introduced to her in 2016. Regardless, the minimalism of this song and “Heat Lightning” are striking and haunting simultaneously. I am loving the addition of vintage grand piano throughout these songs, it gives the music here such a warm pastel hue.
I love the ‘80s hanging gardens, rec centers, summer camps and Texas houses these songs paint a picture of. There is this consistent hum that never really ceases, it’s only briefly overtaken by the occasional loud solo, explosive vocal performance or weird detour (“Should’ve Been Me”). This track reminds me a lot of her deep cut “Strawberry Blond”, it’s like a ditty. It’s perky and theatrical, the jury is still out on whether or not I like it, but I’m leaning towards it being good. Finally, the closer “That’s Our Lamp” ends it off with a bang. It’s a full on ‘70s disco throwback complete with sweeping violins and an over the top performance. Lyrically, it tackles the classic Mitski themes of compulsion, heartbreak and isolation, and my only complaint is that I wish it was a little longer.
Laurel Hell is not Mitski’s best album, but it is certainly her most replayable. It definitely leans more towards the latter half of the term “art pop”, and I will be coming back to it a lot for that reason. But just to be clear in case I haven’t been already, this is a Standout Album. And by definition, Standout Albums cannot be mid!