El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Mitski
“In the last ten years, gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel… I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living”
– T.S. Eliot
To truly engage with a Mitski album demands emotional honesty. What the listener dwells on, what they dismiss, what they find profound, disturbing, beautiful, or overdramatic, and what they take away from the record upon its conclusion will all reveal some part of them. To review the album, then, is not to review the music or the artist so much as it is to review oneself.
Laurel Hell, Mitski’s latest effort, more than three years in the making, has been rolling around in my head (like a pearl?) for the past two weeks, haunting me like a specter. Why? On its surface, Laurel Hell is the simplest, least challenging record its artist has put out in years. For those fans of brevity, it’s a synthpop album. Now, that’s a trendy move in the mainstream sense, to be sure, but it’s actually somewhat contrarian in an indie genre that’s moved in a more unplugged direction in recent years. Few of its songs inspire deep emotion within me, so why then, do I believe that if I don’t finish this review, I’ll never write anything again? Why does it weigh on me? Because: the album isn’t on trial here; I am.
This record starts, of course, at the beginning – the beginning of Mitski’s career in the public eye, that is – with “Valentine, Texas”, a dream pop reinterpretation of Bury Me at Makeout Creek opener “Texas Reznikoff”. Second track and lead single “Working for the Knife” finds Mitski in Los Angeles, trapped in a hazy, Lynchian Red Room of oscillating guitars and fuzzy static. “Stay Soft”, “The Only Heartbreaker”, and “Love Me More” are tight, synthpop rave-ups that she balances with stormy, suffocating dirges like “Heat Lightning”, “There’s Nothing Left for You”, and “I Guess”. There’s even a slice of baroque pop included with “Should’ve Been Me”.
If that seems somewhat slight, it should; There’s no other way to say it, but Laurel Hell just feels light. It’s devoid of any of her trademarks. The confessional lyrics, the impassioned singing, the reach for startling high notes, the desperation, the terror; All gone. What’s here in their place, one might argue, are all apparent from the opener: Synthesizers where there were guitars. A mature lyricist where there was once a volatile diarist. Vocals that are restrained where they once flailed. Control where there was chaos. A machine where there was once feeling.
But what of that? That’s not what sets Laurel Hell apart from other Mitski projects. More than any other of her albums, this one seems to lack weight. Now, it’s certainly not short on hooks or good melodies. Rather, this record is a celebration of songcraft. It luxuriates in how well made it is. The question, then, it would seem, is one of artist vs aesthetic: Am I invested in the artist and their work, or merely the superficial aspects of a certain sound they dabbled in for a time?
It’s a difficult question, and it runs deeper than most would expect. It forces the listener to reappraise the entire Mitski discography. In 2015, on “Your Best American Girl”, she sang “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do”. Did that seem profound and devastating then because it was a potent lyric, or because she belted it out over a squall of distorted guitar and crashing drums? In that case, I’m inclined to put my faith in the lyrics, but the point is taken. This is Laurel Hell’s insidious challenge. It forces the listener to hear Mitski separate from all the other trappings of her music. In that regard, as complete subversion, the record succeeds without question. Guitars do not equate with sincerity, loud singing does not guarantee intense feeling, and it’s possible to be emotional and artistically authentic without making indie rock. Mitski has upped her songwriting game, and she doesn’t need squealing feedback to lend her music impactfulness. Certainly, there is a certain poetry in drinking room temperature vodka and Red Bull in an ashtray carpet apartment, but a fine French wine is objectively better.
Here’s the thing though: This record is not objectively better. In making this album, Mitski has built herself into a machine that churns out brilliant indie pop songs. That’s laudable, but that was never what made Mitski great to begin with. The overly-confessional lyrics, the simple song structures, and the wild vocal performances all gave her character. Her blemishes made her perfect. For every moment of beauty and sincerity on Laurel Hell, there are another two that sound shallow and contrived. I can’t fault the raw emotional power of “Love Me More”, but it gets no help from the by-the-numbers songwriting on “Stay Soft” or “The Only Heartbreaker”. The choruses are beautiful, among Mitski’s best, but the songs are ultimately empty. “Working for the Knife”, even with lyrics that verge on unfinished at times, is able to convey the quiet, existential despair its creator is clearly wracked with, but so little of the remainder of the album attempts to develop or expand upon that theme. “I used to think I’d be done by twenty. Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same. Though maybe at thirty, I’ll see a way to change, That I’m living for the knife.” This isn’t the traditional heartbreak Mitski usually deals in, or even the fear of it, but rather a creeping terror brought on by the idea that a fully-realized life might still mean nothing. It’s terrifying, but it’s also sad that she devotes so much of the album to rehashing the old tropes again and again instead of trying to build on that existential gloom.
In fairness, Mitski does revisit that idea to an extent with “Heat Lightning” and “I Guess”. They’re both claustrophobic odes to surrender and a resigned hope of forgiveness, and they’re both very good. “Heat Lightning” , while sounding strikingly like a Radiohead remake of “Venus in Furs”, actually seems to function as a far-superior companion to the earlier “Stay Soft”. One is about holding too tight, and the other is about the ecstasy of release. “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change, so I give it up to you. I hope that’s okay” she sings, giving herself over to whatever may come, while suffocating synths swell around her, almost imitating the white noise and self-doubt clouding her own mind in the song. “I Guess”, meanwhile, is a little more understated: “It’s been ‘you and me’ since before I was me,” she whispers, “Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live”. It’s simple, effective, and completely heartbreaking. This is what Mitski can do at her best, and it’s exactly what makes Laurel Hell so tragic. The audience gets to watch her, in real time, give herself over to the machine; It’s what’s necessary to survive.
“Texas Reznikoff” was the only happy song on Bury Me at Makeout Creek, and it established Texas as the fount of joy within Mitski’s music. She returns there on Laurel Hell with “Valentine, Texas” just to show everyone what she’s shutting out, what she’s making herself numb to. This is where dust devils and valentines are made. This is where the energy, the creativity, and the love come from, but none of it will be needed here.
This album’s failures don’t stem from the fact that Mitski isn’t allowed to make a “pop record”; Make no mistake, she’s made one that’s taut, well-written, and loaded with hooks. No, Laurel Hell fails because Mitski albums demand emotional honesty, and this one has none to give. Living for the knife; Dying for it. It’s all the same inside the machine.
But you’re the reviewer; You’re the one on trial, right?
A final, all threads resolved, verdict on me in III.
II. “That’s Our Lamp”
There’s something heartbreaking for me about the album closer “That’s Our Lamp”. A song where Mitski meditates on the collapse of a relationship over bouncy, “Wonderful Christmastime”-esque synthesizers has no business being this emotionally-affecting, but it is nonetheless. It all comes from its simple, aching chorus: “That’s where you loved me”.
God, how perfect.
It’s as if she’s taking every criticism that has been or will be leveled against the album and saying “I know.” She knows. She knows and understands almost exactly how this record will be received. She understands that people aren’t spinning this record to hear what she’s come up with this time, but rather to hear their own memories come out of the speaker. With Mitski, it can never just be about the music. The aesthetic was the artist. Those lyrics, that singing, and those guitars weren’t just songs they enjoyed, but experiences they lived. They want to go back, back to where they loved her, but she can’t take them there anymore.
Though Laurel Hell may be shallow and imperfect, it’s still a very good album. Mitski knows, but she also understands how they feel because deep down, she too wants to go back. She wants to return to where things made sense, and where songs could be angry or sad or happy, and that was it. But she can’t, so she went forward instead, into whatever awaited.
You can’t go back.
III. More Observations
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game. If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame. If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker? We kill the flame.”
– Leonard Cohen
Let’s step carefully into the dark?
Or don’t —
It’s none of my concern
Crushed beneath a drum machine
Do we grow up,
Or do we really learn?
In the heart and the larynx
The flower is scorched
This machine is On
I will not go away,
Not on your terms
This thing that I loved
I don’t think it ever loved me
Don’t leave me here, heartbreaker
But we must go away?
So on we go again
Ad nauseam rehearsing
Vicarious catharsis through your pain
Released for me and me alone
Can’t get it from a synth drone
Can I? Grow up without you
Like you did
And this is what you meant, didn’t you?
– John Scarpitti