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Laurel Hell: Mitski’s Present Nostalgia

“Let’s step carefully into the dark.” 

This is how Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski opens her sixth studio album, “Laurel Hell,” which sets the tone for the rest of the tracks. Atmospheric and bold yet vulnerable, Mitski’s latest album retains many of the previous elements of her older music. “Laurel Hell” is an aptly named title, calling to mind the image of poisonous southern plants, laurels, that threaten to entangle you if you get too close. 

Mitski has grown as an artist since her first album in 2012, but she’s also had a reckoning with her own career since her latest album, “Be The Cowboy,” which was released in 2018. Since 2018, Mitski changed from an underground indie-pop darling to a social media star with her songs “Nobody” and “Strawberry Blonde” blowing up on social media. Mitski is well acquainted with being a struggling artist and superstardom, and this album is probably her most introspective when it comes to examining her career, the music industry and her audience. What happens when your dreams come true, but you’re still unhappy? What happens when the thing you love isn’t like it used to be? “Laurel Hell” is an exploration of these themes and more. 

The album starts out moody and melancholic, the standout being “Working For The Knife.” This song directly addresses her relationship with music. It’s only when Mitski accepts her own position in life in the dark, almost reverent “Heat Lightning” that the album picks up in energy, with four pop/synth songs carrying the music in the second half. Even her more upbeat numbers contain a level of sophistication and desperation uncommon for the genre. You don’t know whether you should be dancing or not. 

Like most of her works, this album is concise— barely making it over thirty minutes in runtime. Sometimes, it feels like her songs could use more time to breathe and really explore the journey Mitski wants to take us on. Still, the shorter runtime means that very little of the music is wasted; every beat feels purposeful.

The album went under many iterations, from punk to country, before landing on a synth-heavy 80’s inspired style. This makes the album appear a little scattered, with melancholic love songs sprinkled in with ABBA-style dance ballads. These critiques are only possible because of the impossibly high standard Mitski has set for herself. Even in the album’s fumbles, the imagery remains strong, the lyrics poetic, the music austere. Perhaps this is what her audience deserves after pushing her so much the past few years, catapulting her onto a pedestal that could never be lived up to. At its worst, this album is familiar ground for Mitski fans. At its best, it is pure magic.

If speculation is correct, this could be Mitski’s last album. In that case, the final song, “That’s Our Lamp,” is the perfect note to end on. The imagery of a couple breaking apart reflects her own relationship with music and fame. But, if Mitski keeps going, this song becomes an anthem in an entirely new way. Mitski and the music, despite pitfalls and hardships, decides to try one more time. 

“Laurel Hell” is a stellar album that both newcomers and longtime fans will enjoy. You can find it now on streaming platforms or buy her vinyls directly from her website.

Charlotte Tolly

Bradley U '25

Charlotte is a first year user experience design major with a passion for art and writing. In her free time, you can find her baking, reading, or spending time with her friends.
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