Ever since Japanese-American artist Mitski originally announced she would be taking a pause in her music career in 2019, fans and admirers have been waiting with anticipation at the idea of her return. On Feb. 4, Mitski released her sixth (and possibly last) studio album, Laurel Hell, much to her fans’ revel.
This album contains sounds familiarly heard in Mitski’s other discography, often employing synthpop sounds and techniques emulating an 80’s inspired feel. However, while the more upbeat and buoyant songs contain these playful elements of synth music and rhythmic beats, this juxtaposes the other half of this album with songs including the deeper and forlorn messages illuminated in the lyricism and more melancholy tunes. The focus of this album’s message is on a theme commonly seen in her past works: relationships.
However, this album takes the notion of relationships in its broadest sense to explore and dissect the multitude of relationships artist Mitski herself has faced, including relationships between her lovers, fans, choices and most specifically, her career and values in music and its accompanying industry life. The term “Laurel Hell” is an allusion to a term identifying the experience of falling into a laurel bush, often leaving one with the inability to escape as they are enclosed in its dense thickets. However, laurel bushes are also known to produce flowers of great beauty in contrast with its suffocating foliage; this idea of laurel bushes, carrying their allure in beauty while simultaneously acting as a suffocating trap, mirrors themes and emotions expressed in this album.
After listening to the entire album on repeat for days, I can conclude for myself that this album did not stray far from Mitski’s typical discography, feeling like the exact type of work you would expect from Mitski; this is not meant to be considered a critique nor a downside. This album as a whole, while acting as the epitome of Mitski’s emotionally charged, experimental sound, comes off as a more refined, mature work that plays on her talents in all the best ways possible.
We’ve previously heard Mitski utilize 80s influence and synth-pop sounds in other previous tracks on “Be the Cowboy,” but here, she seems to take these sounds on tracks like “Stay Soft” and “Love Me More” and utilizes them not only in a melodic manner as a way to appeal to the listener’s experience, but as a way to create contrast and build emotional tension at the stark difference between sound and message.
While this may not come off as the most innovative work for Mitski, it doesn’t have to be; this album is not meant to break her barriers, but rather to showcase her growth as a singer, songwriter and artist since her first album, and she does so successfully.
While the range of sounds we hear in this track list varies from soft, melancholy ballads to hyperpop dance songs, each song works simultaneously to tell interwoven stories regarding themes of isolation, hopelessness, love versus grief. Although she writes on her own personal experiences and emotions regarding relationships and her own industry, her lyricism and emotional vulnerability allow for her music to resonate with much broader audiences than solely fellow artists.
Time and time again, Mitski is able to perfectly encapsulate the feelings one often harbors in various relationships yet lacks the words to accurately convey. She blends complex lyrics with either complementary melodies or contrasting synthpop in a way that the audience is better equipped to establish individualized emotional connection reflecting what Mitski herself is expressing.
Out of all her songs, my favorite track has become “Love Me More.” The ambiguity in the lyricism of this song creates an interpretation tailorable to an individual’s perspective. However, regardless of the relationship (whether romantic, internal, or specifically between Mitski and her career/fans/music), the emotions conveyed in the tone are clear: desperation and anxiety.
The use of a synthesizer in par with Mitski’s lyrical repetition in her bridges creates a feeling of inescapable anxiety and thoughts that cannot be contained as the intensity and craving only grow stronger with each passing repetition of each line; hence her distress over seemingly infinite tomorrow’s never allowing for a moment of reflection.