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Album Review: Deconstructing Mitski’s Laurel Hell

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

After four long years of a musical hiatus, Mitski finally returns with a long–awaited comeback; and many of us could not be happier about it. Laurel Hell, the indie-pop legend’s most recent album, proves once again her ability as an honest storyteller through the expression of nostalgia, sadness, heartbreak, and the often crushing weight of expectations. Whether she’s talking about her complicated relationship with music, experiences with a lover, or how she relates to her audience as a performer, it’s clear that the album’s tracks deliver a raw emotion that relates deeply to matters of the existential and the self. The album’s ambiguity in songwriting provokes multiple interpretations of her lyrics.  Even so, the lyrical side is only one of the reasons why her songs evoke so much emotion.

Her ever-present lyrical exploration has become a staple of the artist’s discography, which can be appreciated in her 2016 album Puberty 2, and later again in 2018’s celebrated Be The Cowboy. This time around, in Laurel Hell, Mitski’s introspective lyrics reach the peak of versatility, but only because at times, and in contrast to her former eras, she embraces a sound of the past that is upbeat, enjoyable, and downright danceable. The collaboration between Mitski and longtime friend and producer Patrick Hyland stays true to her recognizable baroque-pop sound and rhythmic complexity, heard specifically in the single Working For The Knife. Going for an 80’s sound today is somewhat of a cliché, specifically in the world of commercial pop, but what makes this risky move worth it in Laurel Hell’s case is that it reveals yet another dimension of the artist without her having to reinvent her musical identity. In other words, it feels true and more importantly, real.

Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight? Mitski asks these questions over the shimmery synths on the album’s first track, Valentine, Texas, preparing the listener for the emotional rollercoaster ahead. The following track, Working for The Knife, explores the feeling of being caught up in repetition, perhaps alluding to the monotony of a 9 to 5. In a more personal tone, it can be a metaphor of her role in the music industry. The shocking conclusion, where reality clashes with expectation, expresses a sense of unfulfillment: 

I always thought the choice was mine, 

And I was right, but I just chose wrong

The next act of the album relates to romantic relationships and the emotional hardships they entail. In The Only Heartbreaker  一undoubtedly the most commercial track on the album 一Mitski explores the role of the person in a relationship that always seems to be the bad guy; or, as she explains in an interview with Pitchfork: “You’re the only one messing up 一because you are the only one trying”. This romantic one-sidedness is aptly followed by Love Me More, which alludes to the need for affection as a way to distract oneself from life’s troubles. Sonically, the track bears an eerie resemblance to the 80’s hit Maniac, by Michael Sembello. Interestingly enough, Mitski and Hyland actually took inspiration from Tubular Bells, the iconic yet unsettling theme of a fan-favorite horror classic, The Exorcist. 

In Should’ve Been Me, Mitski erupts into full baroque-pop splendor as she narrates the strange feeling of being cheated on; albeit with a twist. Instead of taking on a spiteful tone, the song is forgiving and even understanding. After the more romantic arc, Laurel Hell starts concluding the new chapter it embodies in the artist’s career. In I Guess, Mitski departs from what was an essential part of her life, forcing her to practically start living again. Enigmatic ‘till the end, the lyrics could refer to anything from a person to a place; but on a deeper aspect, could point to Mitski’s definite farewell to music. Laurel Hell finally concludes the journey in That’s Our Lamp, a lively yet nostalgic remembrance of past times that’s also the dance party ending of our dreams; finally proving that, even in a world full of struggles and existential doubts, closure can be worth celebrating.

Sofia Capllonch is a musician and graduate architecture student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. When she isn't working on design projects, jamming out or reading a good book, there's a huge chance you'll find her obsessing over guitar gear or hanging out with her cats.