Album: Mitski – Laurel Hell review

by Bilge Nur Yilmaz

Laurel hell is what thickets of Rhododendron form in the deep ends of the southern Appalachians — impassable tangled groves, they are a topographical trap for those foolish enough to fall for its blooms. Mitski’s title to her latest album, following her four-year hiatus, is the perfect, bitter metaphor for all the stories she has in store for us: the mask, the knife, the pretense, the danger, the bliss and the horror

The persona game Mitski has practiced throughout her career is not usually as clear-cut as a precise St. Vincent or David Bowie record — the switches are not so subtle, but the aching storytelling always remains the same. On Laurel Hell, we travel through her maze filled with upbeat elegies: a showcase of aesthetic ironies. Recorded in a studio Nashville, Laurel Hell is filled with short and powerful episodes. 

The album starts out with a clear setlist opener – Valentine, Texas. It’s beyond easy to imagine how as the hypnotic bass would rumble the stage, as the curtain rises to Mitski’s first words facing the audience: ‘Let’s step carefully into the night/Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around/Who will I be tonight?/Who will I become tonight?’ sung poised into a vintage microphone with the gallant acumen of a true host. Now peppered in the art of disguise, Mitski hints at the next dramaturgy. Her literacy in theatrical choreography is not new to her stage presence: Be the Cowboy tour remains in memory with its iconic setup with Artaudian precision. Working for the Knife’s meticulously choreographed video serves the narrative: in the somatic video directed by Zia Anger, Mitski plays with light and movement through her relationship with the camera, the same way she plays with tone and harmony through Laurel Hell. 

‘The music industry is this supersaturated version of consumerism. You are the product being consumed, bought, and sold,’ Mitski has been quoted. Grieving the double life of applause and introspection, the long-tailed guitar reverbs of Working in the Knife wink at Cocteau Twins. Stay Soft arrives with the first hints of the upbeat gloom that stays there through the album. Drenched in sub-bass-heavy 80s synths, tracks such as Heat Lightning bring out the Velvet Underground tactility with a Venus in Furs reminiscent intro.  

In the herbaceous darkness, not everything is grim however: not if you can dance to it. One of the apparent hits, The Only Heartbreaker, carries the co-writer credit of Semisonic’s Dan Wilson who has his signature under certain tracks of Adele and Taylor Swift. An alternative to pop anthems it conquers with a full green-screen music video directed by Maegan Houang and Jeff Desom – where the 80s sci-fi undertones in the music are paired with a supernatural aesthetic that depicts the Anthropocene’s fatal worry for the planet, as Mitski brings her signature choreography into the frame. A story of running away or running to, a mask is inside Mitski. 

Love Me More stands out as the pleading Nobody of this album: repeating yet another strikingly straight-forward command, Mitski devours emotions as her words modulate through the chorus – channeling primal energy similar to Florence + the Machine’s Big God, or Fiona Apple’s I Want You to Love Me: ‘I need you to love me more/Love me more, love me more/Love enough to drown it out Drown it out, drown me out.’ 

The hefty burden to separate your ego from your self, your creative artistry from your money-making business, your appearance from your insides, and your reality from pretence, is a recurring theme for Mitski. On Be the Cowboy, she took on the role of the player; an ironic nobody as her sound pillars pop contrasting the poetic, yet intimidating fragility of the preceding Puberty 2. This Was Our Lamp, the closing track of the new LP, brings back the brutal honesty of Puberty 2 in its lyrics, but assures an ironic sad disco: ‘Cause you just don’t like me, not like you used to.’ 

As the chopped-up frequencies of a noise choir dance in the background, Mitski attempts to acknowledge and reconcile with the soon-to-be-past by striking a major chord — masking the bitter ceremony of an ending. 

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