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On 'Laurel Hell,' Mitski is working for the knife, one album at a time

Since her self-released debut album “Lush” — recorded while she was still a student at SUNY Purchase College's Conservatory of Music — Mitski has been grappling with the big questions. On the haunting track “Abbey,” she wonders what she is meant to be and describes the feeling of waiting for “that something / just to want something.” It’s chilling to listen to these lyrics now that Mitski has “made it,” having released critically acclaimed album after album and boasting nearly ten million monthly listeners on Spotify. On her latest album, “Laurel Hell,” Mitski may no longer be asking as many forward-looking questions, but she instead contemplates her past naïveté and reveals her enduring insecurities and yearnings in her signature visceral style. 

Named after the alluring, poisonous mountain shrubs native to the eastern United States, “Laurel Hell” peels back the layers of Mitski’s glossy new fame and strips away the various personas she donned in her 2018 album “Be the Cowboy.” On “Working for the Knife” — the lead single of the new album and the first signal of Mitski’s return after her “indefinite” break from music starting in 2019 — she conveys her disillusionment with the exploitative music industry and her resignation to the idea of working toward her inevitable demise as an entertainer. Backed by droning synths and a trudging beat, she admits her regret over not making movies (she originally enrolled at Hunter College to study film before transferring to Purchase) but eventually accepts that she is “dying for the knife,” as we all are in today’s chopping-block world where everyone is increasingly replaceable. 

On the whole, though, “Laurel Hell” is more uptempo and peppy than Mitski’s previous works; even songs about self-doubt and longing are propelled by nostalgic 80s dance beats. On “The Only Heartbreaker,” Mitski croons about her self-perceived inability to hold up her end of the relationship, but as the track builds to its explosive climax, the refrain turns ironic (and a little bitter) — Mitski begrudgingly plays the “bad guy” while her lover is passively “by the window, only watching.” It’s the ultimate dance-cry anthem for anyone who’s ever felt like the weak link in a relationship, only to realize that maybe “the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.” The track’s follow-up “Love Me More” continues the sonic thread by sampling chords from Flashdance’s “Maniac,” as Mitski longs for someone to “drown it out, drown me out” and the climbing synths grant her wish.

The album’s quieter moments and production nuances — contributed by her longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland — make these soaring crests all the more thrilling. The album opener “Valentine, Texas” begins in obscurity, before Mitski’s crisp voice breaks through and beckons to “step carefully into the dark.” It’s as if she’s guiding the listener down a dark, cool stairway, conjuring mental images of “wet teeth, shining eyes glimmering by a fire” — but on the last word, the stairway lights up and unveils a world of blazing candelabras and dazzling chandeliers. Sweeping synths and transportive organ tones fill the soundscape, and the stairway walls open up: now, Mitski invites the listener to “drive out to where dust devils are made / by dancing ghosts as they kick up clouds of sand.” 

On “That’s Our Lamp,” all the way at the opposite end of the album, Mitski once again merges the majestic with the domestic, comparing the lamp she shared with her lover to a big moon. “That's where you loved me,” she repeats longingly as she gazes up their shared room. But considered in conjunction with the opening line of “Valentine, Texas,” this line takes on a new meaning: her lover only loves her in the dark, much like the one from her 2016 track “A Loving Feeling.” It’s one of the recurring tensions in Mitski’s work: she longs to be left alone, but she also craves for more — more love, more fulfillment, and more just for the sake of wanting more. Is it wrong for fans to want more from her too?

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