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‘Laurel Hell’ Review: Mitski Returns in Full Bloom

4.5 Stars

Album cover for Mitski's "Laurel Hell."
Album cover for Mitski's "Laurel Hell." By Courtesy of Mitski / Dead Oceans
By Clara V. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

Mitski’s sixth studio album “Laurel Hell,” which premiered on Feb. 4, spares the indie rock star no time to rest on her much-deserved laurels. Instead, she sets them ablaze and smears the ashes into song.

A press release from label Dead Oceans describes the record as a “soundtrack for transformation.” Mitski’s creative fire, still an unstoppable force after her two-year break from performing, indeed clears out a space to soothe the pain that such drastic change can bring.

The first line of album opener “Valentine, Texas” serves as both invitation and warning: “Let’s step carefully into the dark.” The melody’s slow movement in narrow intervals mirrors Mitski’s tentative descent into a once-familiar place. “Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around,” she assures us — and surely enough, she regains her footing as the music strengthens. But not even Mitski’s soaring soprano can shake off the weight of each step, so she resorts to hoping that the “mountains” pulling her down will “float off of me.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Mitski explained the paradoxical necessity of suppressing the very emotions that fuel her sound in order “to survive in the music industry as it exists.” Lead single “Working for the Knife” cuts right to the heart of her artistic frustration: “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too.” When the bright piano motif that emerges from this chilling admission later returns, its hopeful resolution falters under densely packed synths and guitars that forge ahead in steady rhythm. “I always knew the world moves on,” Mitski admits. The track moves on at the same unforgiving pace, even as “dying for the knife” replaces “working for the knife” in the last verse.

At a tempo fit for a lullaby, “Heat Lightning” burns with the creeping dread of a sleepless night. After the first chorus, where Mitski admits “there’s nothing I can do, not much I can change” about the feelings keeping her awake, a delicate keyboard passage floats above the low rumble of the bass. The imagery that follows is just as exquisite, almost distracting from the storms brewing on the horizon and in Mitski’s mind: As the “sleeping eyelid of the sky flutters in a dream,” she watches the trees “swaying in the wind like sea anemones.”

Co-written by Mitski and prolific hitmaker Dan Wilson, “The Only Heartbreaker” borrows from ‘80s dance-pop to give the repentant perspective of the “bad guy in the play,” as Mitski calls herself in relation to an unnervingly faultless significant other. “If you could just make one mistake / What a relief that would be,” the song begins. At one point, a pounding heart briefly assumes the role of percussion before giving out to a snappy backbeat. Its disappearance raises a bleak possibility: Mitski may be the “only heartbreaker,” but what if her heart is the only one breaking? Her partner, who stays “by the window, only watching,” doesn’t seem to care. “I wanted to capture a deeper, sadder feeling, where you kind of realize, ‘Oh, maybe I’m the only one making mistakes because I’m the one always trying,’” Mitski told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1.

The pre-pandemic conception of “Love Me More,” whose first line is “If I keep myself at home,” adds prescience, on top of accuracy, to Mitski’s restless portrayal of loneliness. As she sings, “I need you to love me more / Love me more, love me more,” twice on the same notes in each chorus, the threefold repetition of the lyrics, melody, and accompanying synth ostinato conveys the recurring temptation to view someone else’s affection as an escape from oneself.

“That’s Our Lamp” concludes the album with a flash of disco. After a fight with someone who doesn’t like her like they “used to,” Mitski looks up at their shared apartment, where the titular lamp “shines like a big moon” through the dark. “That’s where you loved me,” she remembers. As the thought echoes in the last chorus and outro, “loved” starts to sound more like “left” — to me, at least. But is there really that much of a difference when both are in past tense?

Mitski named “Laurel Hell” after the thickets of mountain laurel that grow in the southern Appalachians, whose beautiful flowers disguise dense branches that, according to legend, have lured countless passersby to their deaths. Not despite but in light of the darkness at its roots, her latest music shines in full bloom.

—Staff writer Clara V. Nguyen can be reached at clara.nguyen@thecrimson.com.

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