The ambivalence and intersection of identities in Mitski's ‘The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We’

Mitski is the voice of this era. Sometimes one doesn’t have to be a part of the generation that confronts specific issues particular to a period: to document, to represent and to transform a time – one can be as fictional as realistic. Mitski’s music is always as poetic as political in itself. 

Mitski’s album “Laurel Hell” was released in 2022, during a time when part of the world was still enshrouded by COVID-19. My listening experience is probably similar to a wide range of her audience. The album was born out of an era of smoldering violence when people were boxed into corners of darkness, yet “Laurel Hell” became a harbor and even an asylum: it is not just an inspection of the human condition during the epidemic, but a voice, a vent, an entrance as well as an exit. 

“This land is inhospitable and so are we.” The title of Mitski’s latest album embodies a live image, futile and ambivalent. In “This Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We,” Mitski flips her narratives from “Laurel Hell” and thoroughly unfolds her story as well as her identity. She still is there, in the circular burns of modern life, and she begins to see both sides of life: lightness and heaviness, monotony and iridescence, neediness and self-sufficiency. No longer did she pour out her longings like she once did in the iconic pandemic theme song “Love Me More.” She still employs cascading new-wave synthesizers but this time she responds, at the very end of her album, with ascending chord progressions: “I Love Me After You.”

The most striking scene in the album is the comeback of “My Love Mine All Mine.” Tracks before this core theme song are theatrical and emotionally intense. In “I Don’t Like My Mind,” it seems that Mitski intentionally keeps her vocal at a high volume to maintain a tension between rhythms and lyrics, and there is little variation in the melodic lines. Though the intensity moderates in “The Deal,” where she starts with clean guitar motifs and advances with grand orchestral harmonies, Mitski reintroduces such tension in the end of the track with percussive movements. Mitski furthers the dramatic effect by adding soprano motifs and remarkable brass lines amid the chorus of “When Memories Snow” – mimicking the imaginary synaesthetic scene corresponding to its title. This is where everything accumulates and ultimately arrives at the brink of collapse, yet “My Love Mine All Mine” breaks in tenderly – and poetically. 

“Moon, a hole of light” – “My Love Mine All Mine” begins with an imagery that is still but later becomes dialogical. Under Mitski’s portrayal, paleness and intensity coexist in the imagery of the moon, which embodies all her inaudible, overwhelmed feelings. Those feelings are concretized in the music video: we see Mitski dressed in pale white, pushing the door with her whole weights, in cascading bright lights behind. Chairs are about to topple down, yet she clings to them tightly, clambering up to breathe and bathe in the lights above. In such instability and uncertainty we find those heartfelt lyrics pouring out: “Nothing in the world belongs to me / But my love, mine, all mine.” We find ourselves encircled by the cresting warm wave of soft melodies as if we are bathing the moonlight under the overarching sky, solitarily. She knows that this world, this land, is boundless but brittle and will ultimately collapse, and we still see it as a harbor – we call it home, even if we were alone. Alone, anonymous. Autonomous. 

Love and Belongingness. What does it mean to be American? In an interview, Mitski told the audience that she has always been searching for an answer to this question. As a biracial person, as an Asian American, Mitski mentioned that she has to “reconcile” all her various identities in today’s America, and that it is difficult to not be entrapped in others’ imagination of oneself. Identities are not always clear or linear:

“I am an other in America even though I am American. And I almost feel like a majority of Americans are actually other. And that's kind of what makes America what it is.” 

What does it mean to belong? It is hard to not avoid answers that are intrinsically ambivalent, yet only in nuance did we find a striking truth – something can never be disentangled. Ambivalence is nature, and nature is not always binary. She is both American and Other, and when she is both, she is complete. 

Mitski’s voice is consistent in this album. Now she writes about unconditional self-love and union just like how she wrote longings in her previous era. Even in one of the closing tracks, “Stars,” where love and light are both fading, she speaks with tenderness: “I’m yours, no matter / That love’s gone / We just see it shining.” In a new-wave, kaleidoscopic orchestral closure, she sings: “Keep a leftover light / Burning so you can keep looking up / Isn’t that worth holding on?” If you listen to this place, you’d know that it’s worth holding on. 


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