It’s Time for Mitski to Rest On Her Laurels

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Shreya Selvaraju

The album’s name is a reference to the dense bushes of laurel that often trap and kill unknowing hikers in the Appalachian mountains.

Shreya Selvaraju, Campus News Editor

When Mitski released a fifth album amid rumors she had quit music, I was overjoyed. 32 minutes later, I was underwhelmed. Mitski’s signature short lyrics seemed even shorter, her calm nature was more subdued, and the raw bursts of chaotic energy often hidden in a Mitski album were nowhere to be found. There was, however, a chance at redemption, as the album presented a new style and sound that felt like a new Mitski.

In her fifth album, Laurel Hell, which came out on Friday, Feb. 4, Mitski navigates growing up, gaining fame, and the price at which her career as an artist has been afforded to her. It is pertinent to mention that following the release of her last album, Be the Cowboy, Mitski planned to stop making music indefinitely, only returning after the discovery that she owed her record label one last album. 

This complicated relationship with her career is first addressed in Working for the Knife, the album’s lead single, which reflects on the sacrifices Mitski has made for her career. She confronts her evolving feelings on feeling trapped in a career she used to love, lyrically transitioning from “working for the knife” to “dying for the knife” in order to convey the commitment she’s made for her career.  

Conversely, in Heat Lightning, Mitski lets go, surrendering herself and noting that there’s “not much I can do.” The song also illustrates a beautiful return to form, starting as a solemn ballad that like all the best Mitski songs, picks up in the middle, with the lyric “Can I give it up to you / would that be okay?”.

Track six, The Only Heartbreaker, departs from the moody nature of its predecessors, encapsulating the mood of the album with a catchy synth-backed confession. While this aids the sonic value of the song, it feels uncertain, as if the song doesn’t know what it wants to be. This feeling seems to be the pulse of the album, a jaded weariness that at times, attempts to disguise itself with a hyper-pop-leaning sensibility, and at others, simply embraces it with loud instrumentals reminiscent of Lush, Mitski’s debut album.  

This feeling seems to be the pulse of the album, a jaded weariness that at times, attempts to disguise itself with a hyper-pop-leaning sensibility, and at others, simply embraces it with loud instrumentals.”

There’s Nothing Left Here for You performs the latter perfectly, peaking with a hearty, “you could touch fire / you could fly” before abruptly calming down with “and then it passed.” Taking a cue from Be a Cowboy, the song bleeds into the next, setting up its successor, Should’ve Been Me, before the song ends. With Should’ve Been Me, Mitski gives us a peppy expression of vulnerability that cleverly communicates its somber message with an indulgent upbeat nature to exclaim how Mitski hasn’t “given you what you need.”

I Guess, the album’s tenth song, gives the listener something new to grasp. It maintains the steady tone for the rest of the album, while echoing a new beginning that simultaneously feels like a cautious goodbye. Mitski’s lyrics feel as if they could address both a past relationship and her feelings toward a public music career. This sense of duality makes the song feel brilliant in its obscure honesty. Its eerily beautiful production reflects a mentality toward change that resonates deeply with the bittersweet motion of leaving and the thoughts it can bring up. 

Ironically, the album’s duality serves as a double-edged sword, aiding its allure while denying the possibility of any clear answers from Mitski, and making an already mysterious artist even more ambiguous. The characterizing earnest nature of her previous work is nowhere to be found, and it feels as if something is missing. This watered-down quality can be credited to Mitski’s unease with fame, as documented in Working for the Knife. The album unconsciously asks a layered question about the parasocial relationships we form with artists, and the toll it can take on both artists, and how they express themselves.  

Ironically, the album’s duality serves as a double-edged sword, aiding its allure while denying the possibility of any clear answers from Mitski.”

As an artist, Mitski is lauded for the rawness and authenticity reflected throughout her production, lyrics, and onstage performances. While the album may lack this raw emotion, what makes it so undeniably good is its expression of maturity and growth. With Laurel Hell, Mitski presents us with a body of work that reconfigures her legacy, questioning how close to her audience she wants to be.