Over the last decade Mitski has marked herself out as one of the most compelling and dynamic artists in the alt pop sphere as she gradually and impressively moved from cult secret to the cusp of a genuine mainstream breakthrough with 2018’s excellent fifth album Be The Cowboy.
It was an ascent though that took its toll emotionally and professionally, as Mitski questioned her place in the industry, wrestling with commercial expectation and the lines of who she really was as a person and a pop ‘persona’ becoming increasingly blurred and distorted. Returning with Laurel Hell she has decided to cast the shackles aside and deliver her boldest and strongest musical statement yet, rejecting cult appeal for a pop sheen steeped in her own distinct image.
There was a chance that this album wouldn’t exist at all as Mitski, burned out after years on the road and the constant stream of attention in the social age, vowed to walk away from music to start a new life at the end of 2019. It’s all the more remarkable then that the album she has created sounds so positively full of life. There’s a widescreen ambition at work that has previously only been hinted at but is now fully realised. There’s no room for half measures here. She can’t walk away no matter how much she feels she wants to, so the only way to feed the compulsion to make music is to go all in. Everything counts.
The album is vivid and striking, with a rich emotional core. There’s a soaring, yearning quality to the sky scraping synth hooks that drive songs like The Only Heartbreaker and the powerful epic grandeur of Love Me More. It all feels like the natural evolution of Mitski’s journey.
It’s intriguing that Mitski’s most introspective work is accompanied by her most outward looking and accessible songs yet. Laurel Hell undoubtedly contains some of the brightest and boldest pop songs of her whole career. Yet despite the accessibility, an underlying sense of tension makes this work captivating. You can hear her navigating a way forward on a track like the distinctly odd yet hook filled lead single Working For The Knife. There’s self doubt but just a hint of salvation as she sings, “maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change”.
As a collection of songs the record is sharp and concise. Nothing lasts much longer than three minutes. Brevity has always been one of Mitski’s strengths, and nothing here outstays its welcome. Centred around its core of stirring synth driven ’80s influenced pop songs she sprinkles some resonating tinges of darkness around the edges on the likes of subtly eerie opener Valentine, Texas. In general though the mood is clear and invigorating. This is a record you can dance to, even if it’s also a record you can cry to. The sum is an inspiring record both for the creator and the listener.
Over the course of a long career making music things will be lost along the way, as priorities change and emotions evolve. But for the most special artists there will be things they find on the journey; new perspectives, new ways of expressing their art and finding their own truth. The period of reflection leading up to this album may prove to be the pivotal moment in Mitski’s career. With Laurel Hell she has come back from the precipice of the abyss with a work that provides both continuation and illuminating rebirth.