Sharp, haunting ‘Laurel Hell’ marks Mitski’s return to electronic rock

Photo of the Mitski album cover
Dead Oceans/Courtesy

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“Let’s step carefully into the dark,” Mitski begins Laurel Hell, announcing her return from a two-year hiatus with a delicate but ominous tone. Echoed by disembodied choral voices before bursting into an organ synth dream, “Valentine, Texas” is a fitting opener to the indie rock artist’s sixth album. 

Laurel Hell finds Mitski willingly reentering a Sisyphean struggle to stay engaged with the world. She pours out emotional lyrics about the turbulence of the creative process and the agony of lopsided love, all through dramatic chord progressions and ’80s dance beats. 

The album’s lead single “Working for the Knife” is the most obvious reflection on the pressures of being an artist under public scrutiny. At the end of her Be the Cowboy tour in 2019, Mitski announced her plan to take an indefinite break from producing music, but her contractual obligation with record label Dead Oceans wasn’t over quite yet. 

“I always thought the choice was mine/ And I was right, but I just chose wrong,” she sings, grappling with growing older in the public eye and critiquing the idea that one must exploit themselves in order to create good art. The five verses don’t vary much in structure or melody, conveying the monotony of working under the threatening blade of capitalism — there is no buildup, no moment of release to look forward to.

Similarly, “Love Me More” can be interpreted as a confession of dependency on her audience for happiness, asking them to “love enough to drown it out.” Like most of Mitski’s work, however, the song’s meanings are deliberately multifaceted; perhaps she is looking for a romantic partner to fill the sense of emptiness. She belts the chorus as her pleas grow louder, and circular chord progressions create the illusion of spiraling downward. 

But in “Heat Lightning,” she surrenders: “And there’s nothing I can do/ Not much I can change.” With a soft twang reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, she sings about insomnia and the power dynamics of an imbalanced partnership. Her strange nature imagery amplifies the song’s unsettling, dreamlike quality — she describes an eyelid in the sky and compares trees to sea anemones. “Stay Soft” is equally surreal and vaguely erotic, using double entendres to explore vulnerability, numbness and sadomasochistic tendencies in relationships. 

Though it may seem a peculiar choice alongside such emotional themes, Mitski lacquers the whole album with a glittery sheen of ’80s synth-pop. The first few seconds of “The Only Heartbreaker” could be mistaken for a tune by A-ha, and the funky “Should’ve Been Me” sounds like Kate Bush romping through a meadow. The upbeat melodies counterbalance the heavy lyrics and sometimes even add an element of bizarre comedy. In the music videos for “Working for the Knife” and “Love Me More,” Mitski dances erratically to the beat, pantomiming motions like puffing a cigarette as if she’s a deranged puppet from an ’80s TV show. 

With only 11 short tracks, the album is just over half an hour in total, but every note is crafted with such deliberation that it still manages to take listeners on an emotional journey — although fans may still find themselves wanting more of the meandering musical digressions that shaped much of her previous work. The penultimate track “I Guess” seems like a final resignation from music, but when followed by the joyful horns and strangely optimistic “That’s Our Lamp,” it doesn’t feel like goodbye.

Mitski revealed in November that the album’s name refers to the poisonous brambles of laurel bushes that grow in the Appalachian mountains, trapping ignorant passersby. “When you get stuck in these thickets, you can’t get out. Or so the story goes,” she said. Her struggle to escape the laurel hell of love, work and life itself proves to be a haunting dance through a beautiful maze.

Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].