“Laurel Hell” Review: The Tragedy of Mitski and Her Art

Andy Mockbee

Contributing Writer


“Sometimes I think I am free,” singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki remarks in her sixth studio album. Her voice wilts as she finishes the couplet: “until I find I’m back in line again.” The artist has long asserted that she frequently addresses her songs to a personified concept of music. On previous records, she often sang to this vague “you” in service of expressing the desires and conflicts within herself. Opener to her album “Be The Cowboy,” “Geyser” presented her relationship to making music as a romantic one to express the overwhelming role art plays in her identity. However, Mitski articulates this relationship in disrepair. Returning to 80s-inspired synths and showy disco, Mitski’s dazzling sixth album shines like a silver-screen tragedy featuring the codependent relationship between an artist and her art.

The sound of “Laurel Hell” digs deeper into the disco-tinged pop of previous hits “Nobody” and “Washing Machine Heart.” The primary difference this time around is the added theatrics. “Stay Soft” is instrumentally aligned to the former, but Mitski’s vocals are more playful and expressive than ever, dipping and soaring like a show-tune. “Should’ve Been Me” sounds like if ABBA covered Hall and Oates’ “Maneater,” but Mitski’s stellar vocals and profound lyricism make it all her own. The track, alongside “The Only Heartbreaker,” follows in a long-running theme in Mitski’s work of not being what someone had hoped for. Previously, such as in “Goodbye My Danish Sweetheart,” Mitski articulated this with a softer resignation. Here, however, there is a distinct frustration beneath the surface—the artist seems to simmer within the confines of the work. This will make sense to anyone witness to the meteoric uprise Mitski has seen in her career over the past two years. More people than ever were observing her, leading to many asserting claims over the artist’s humanity. This is more evident than ever in a video of Mitski reading tweets about herself. The singer became clearly uncomfortable at the reductive labeling of “sad girl music.” 

The connection to an audience is only a small portion of this album’s nuance. “Heat Lightning” is a more somber folk track in which the artist commits herself and her stability completely to music. The chorus takes this devotion to an almost religious level, subtextually recognizing it as overreliance. As the album reaches its final destination, it becomes clear to Mitski that her relationship with making music cannot sustain if they continue this codependent path. The penultimate track, “I Guess” is a sparse piano ballad thanking music for what it has given her, followed by a unique closer for the artist. “That’s Our Lamp” features upbeat pop, but the lyrical content paints a grimmer picture. “We may be ending / I’m standing in the dark / Looking up into our room / Where you’ll be waiting for me” she sings. As the track blossoms into noise, the audience is left wondering whether the couple are done for good. But after the disrepair she grapples with on her excellent sixth album, will Mitski return to answer its call?