Music

Mitski’s Back, Not Quite Better Than Ever

On Laurel Hell, the sad-girl icon is at conflict with her career.

A woman in a red dress holds out her red scarf to her right side.
Ebru Yildiz

Since the dawn of her career, the singer-songwriter Mitski (full name Mitski Miyawaki) has contended with the dilemma of self-possession under scrutiny. The first words on her first album, Lush—a Fiona Apple-esque cabaret-rock record that she made as a junior in the SUNY Purchase music conservatory program in 2012—say “I’m beautiful, I know,” but then demand, “What am I to do with all this beauty?” The next track opens, “You like control—well, I do too.”

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As Mitski became far more widely seen and heard, these compunctions compounded. On 2016’s Puberty 2, breakout single “Your Best American Girl” was often taken as a protest song about race—born in Japan to a white American-diplomat father and a Japanese mother, Mitski was brought up relocating constantly around the globe—even as she objected that it was only a heartbreak anthem. Its music video, in which Mitski vies with a blonder-than-blonde model for a white himbo’s gaze, put the racial dynamic in the foreground. But her resistance to that reading seemed meant to shut down any hazard of objectification as an Asian woman, even in the context of critique. Her next album, 2018’s Pitchfork Album of the Year Be the Cowboy, ran through a gamut of musical styles in the spirit of its title’s exhortation to masquerade self-confidence, in the hopes that the pretense could become real.

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Though it can range from a low creak to a vaulting howl, the very timbre of Mitski’s voice carries a sense of remove, of an artist always catching herself in the act of self-exposure. That distanced quality, somewhat to my surprise, hasn’t stood in the way of her wholesale adoption by adherents of the “sad girl” online aesthetic. The melodic emotional mayhem of songs such as “Nobody” and “Washing Machine Heart” is recycled perpetually in memes and TikTok trends. Mitski, however, came on the scene several years ahead of many of the young, female, and/or queer indie singer-songwriters most associated with that kind of emphatic emotionality, and she’s a full decade older than their more recent pop equivalents like Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo. A witty social-media presence early in her career, she’s long since backed away from it, and has often spoken of feeling flummoxed and hemmed in by the intense attention her posts would sometimes receive. In an interview with the Guardian last week, she said she’d become a “black hole where people can dump all their shit, whether it’s a need for love, or it’s hatred and anger… I’ve put myself in this position where anyone can really do anything they want to me.”

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When her months-long tour for Be the Cowboy ended in 2019, she announced that she was taking a hiatus from music, which she’s more recently acknowledged was intended to be permanent. It’s hard to say whether Mitski’s new album, Laurel Hell, would exist at all if she hadn’t realized she was under contractual obligation to her label Dead Oceans. Listening to the music doesn’t resolve the question: As has often been the case in Mitski’s work, most of the 11 songs work like the well-known duck-rabbit ambiguous figure illusion, such that they can be heard as either about romantic pain or about the agonies of a creative public life. The captivating lead single “Working for the Knife,” released in October, dispenses with the ambiguity and goes at the career issue head-on, with “the knife” of the title clearly the blade of commerce and publicity constantly menacing both art and life. “Now at 29 the road ahead appears the same,” Mitski sings, “though maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change.”

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[Read: Stop Asking if Mitski’s OK]

Because of the album’s long gestation, through hiatus and then pandemic, she’s turned 31 since those words were written. On Laurel Hell—the title itself a kind of purgatorial image, referring to thickets of poisonous southern brambles in which people can become trapped and die—Mitski documents her search for modes of expression beyond her youthful vulnerability or bravado, but these songs don’t quite fulfill that quest. In this way, it’s reminiscent of 2021 records by former tour-mate Lorde and fellow Nashville resident Kacey Musgraves (Mitski first moved to the country hub when she was considering retiring from performance, to explore behind-the-scenes songwriting instead). All three followed up their most acclaimed albums by taking stylistic sidesteps, pointedly not trying to repeat or top the cathartic heights of her previous work. In Lorde’s and Mitski’s cases particularly, their willingness to risk disappointing some fans with more understated songs bespeaks their deep queasiness about stardom’s current symbiosis with invasive social media. While the more extroverted, exhibitionist performers probably always have an edge in show business, listening to Laurel Hell, as well as reading Mitski’s interviews around it, makes one wonder if we’ve collectively fostered a culture utterly inimical to artists who are more reticent and introspective.

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This conflicted state comes across in the production choices, which never make either a definitive departure or an inspired continuation from what’s come before. All Mitski songs spring from her fragmentary poetics and half-askew melodies; she’s one answer for listeners who find many current singer-songwriters too dully conversational in their tunes. In interviews, she’s said that she and longtime producer-collaborator Patrick Hyland put these tracks through many iterations (including punk and country) before resolving to lean into 1980s dance-pop frameworks for much of the album. But that sad-indie-banger style is becoming worn-out territory today, and for all the catchiness and underlying emotional sophistication of “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More,” for instance, it feels diminishing of Mitski’s uniqueness to set her up as yet another decade-removed echo of Body Talk-era Robyn.

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Her vocals and perceptions are afforded more space by the Hall-and-Oates-go-Nashville sound on “Should’ve Been Me” and the Velvet Underground/northern-synth/southern-twang melting pot of “Heat Lightning.” Even more irresistible is the Björk-y sci-fi sound of “Stay Soft,” which grapples with what is won and lost in being toughened by life with age, while also flirting with sadomasochistic eroticism—“You stay soft, get beaten/ Only natural to harden up”—hinging on a mid-song image of self-pleasure as one possible alternative to either numbness or submission. (It’s also my favorite of all the uniformly extraordinary, surreal performance art-inspired videos she’s released for this album.)

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In other places, 2022’s Mitski sounds enervated and half-defeated. Opener “Valentine, Texas” and fourth track “Everyone” call back to older titles “Texas Reznikoff” (the start of Bury Me at Makeout Creek, her first post-college record) and “Nobody” respectively, and the songs aren’t flattered by the comparison. The sweetly woozy penultimate song, “I Guess,” could easily be taken as a resignation letter from music—“I guess this is the end/ I’ll have to learn/ To be somebody else”—though it’s followed by a rejuvenating burst with the ABBA-esque happy-sad sweep of closer “That’s Our Lamp,” a moving invocation of memory’s consolations after love has gone.

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Like previous Mitski albums, Laurel Hell is compact, running barely more than half an hour. Few songs extend past the three-minute mark, another sign of her discipline and deliberateness that I usually appreciate. But in this case, one wonders if she might have been better served by some rambling digressions, going off-road into the thicket and seeing if the songs could make it back intact. At its best, the record does feel exploratory, but it’s as if Mitski is withholding the full scope of the adventure. Perhaps this is all we deserve. Still, while savoring the rich thoughtfulness of Laurel Hell’s best moments, fans hoping for more should keep their fingers crossed, if only to prevent them from tweeting.

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