Like a good chunk of the 20-somethings trying to live their lives in a pandemic, I fell in love (or perhaps deeper in love) with Mitski. With her heart-wrenchingly poetic lyrics, hypnotic electric guitar-synth-bass sounds and an absolute siren-like voice, Mitski Miyawaki is perhaps one of the most compelling artists of our time. She’s been appropriately labeled the Poet Laureate of young adulthood by NPR, and to be honest, there’s no other way to describe her sheer talent and force as an artist. Her songs are all relatively short, perhaps anywhere from two minutes to three minutes in length, each one with powerhouse lyrics that speak right into the hungriest of human emotion. And now, in our year 2022, Mitski has returned with her gut-wrenching album “Laurel Hell.”
“Laurel Hell” is, perhaps, the only title that could exist for this beautiful collection of songs from someone like Mitski. Which is, to say, poetic, but also tinged with a feverish dread that reflects the artist’s own tumultuous trajectory as someone who has now entered more mainstream media. Mitski referenced the burnout and this frustration with how people have labeled her music, particularly what she calls “the sad girl schtick.” This frustration with her music and her newfound popularity and all the complications that come with that are all present themes in the music, and in her usual beautiful way, Mitski captures these lyrics with a deep-rooted profoundness that somehow touches even those of us who aren’t masterful indie artists.
One song on this album that covers the more feverish sides to this phenomenon is the brooding “Working for the Knife.” Released as the first single of this album, “Working for the Knife” is an excellent transition from Mitski’s previous album “Be the Cowboy”: This song, with its distant hammering sounds, resembles that of an old railway working song. This is, of course, intentional, as “Working for the Knife” details the miserable feeling of working just for the sake of working. Mitski captures this emptiness best with the lyrics, “I used to think I’d be done by 20, now at 29, the road appears the same,” speaking to the pervasive, panic-inducing bewilderment that so many 20-somethings seem to feel these days. We’ve worked so hard, but why does our world still feel the same, and why do we still feel as though we’ve been here before? These are the questions that Mitski brings up in “Working for the Knife,” and in the end, she concludes with the worst conclusion that I think so many of us fear—that “I chose wrong…and end with the truth, that I’m dying for the knife.” Talk about a sharp lyric to make you feel the gut-wrenching, life-draining phenomenon that is burnout.
But of course, burnout isn’t the only theme covered in “Laurel Hell.” As we move down the tracklist, we’ll find my personal favorites, “There’s Nothing Left for You” and “I Guess.” Both of these songs are slow, with low synths and a large focus on Mitski’s voice. However, they have fundamentally different feelings, in that “There’s Nothing Left for You” is about the feeling of being replaced or being forced to move on now that you’ve left. Perhaps the most chilling moment in this song is how, while the song starts somber and slow, the bridge takes a breathtaking crescendo: In the wake of her irrelevance, it is here Mitski recalls, “You could fly, it was your right, it was your life.” In that brief moment, you can imagine someone soaring through the clouds—the music swells, Mitski’s voice stretches into a powerful bellow that makes you feel as though you really are drifting through the clouds with her—only to crash suddenly, violently back down to the ground when Mitski quietly concludes, “and then it passed to someone new.” This turnaround (or return!) makes for a particularly jarring effect on the listener, but it’s an appropriate tactic in capturing that disappointing feeling of being on top of the world one moment, then at the bottom in the next. The song is brutal in that nature, but it’s also so breathtaking in how it can capture such a complex emotion in less than three minutes.
But if “There’s Nothing Left for You” touches on the grief that comes with feeling replaced, “I Guess,” while just as quiet and slow, gives this feeling a touch of sweetness to the bitter. Relying on synths and the repetitive chords of a piano, Mitski sings a simple message: “I guess this is the end…it’s been you and me, before I was me.” Over the course of this approximately two-minute song, Mitski reflects on the quiet after someone who’s now leaving her—and although she makes it clear in the song that she has to leave now, she sings, “From here [the pond], I can tell you ‘thank you.’” As the final synths and piano chords die out in the background, all we have left is the last haunting notes of Mitski’s echoing voice, as though she herself is calling across from the water. Perhaps what makes this song most special is that, while the other songs have a touch of resentment or bitterness to them, this song is also touched with a spot of gratitude. As though waving away an old friend who you know you won’t be seeing ever again in your life, “I Guess” takes all the bitterness of this album and leaves its listeners with a wistful whisper of a feeling, one that will make you feel equal parts gratitude and loneliness at the possibility of a chapter closing.
Now, while it’s uncertain whether this album might actually be Mitski’s official encore from her time as an artist, one thing is clear: “Laurel Hell” is an absolute gem. With its synth sounds and masterful lyrics covering its many nuanced themes, Mitski proves herself to truly reign supreme over the indie genre and then some. Mitski is equal parts musician and poet. She is equal parts honest and sarcastic. And “Laurel Hell” shines with the power of an artist who’s unafraid to play with the genre and songwriting as a whole.