After nearly quitting music, Mitski has returned with a darkly sweet album full of heartache, introspection, and unbridled emotion. At one point in time, Be The Cowboy could have been her final release after a gruelling touring cycle brought to light circumstances that demonstrated how bloodthirsty the music industry can be.
Whether she had quit music or not, her short legacy would have been the same – an extremely talented and expressive artist who has an innate knack for songwriting. Be The Cowboy would have offered a sudden sense of closure, whereas Laurel Hell ties up all loose ends.
Many still wonder whether Laurel Hell is her musical swansong, and regardless of that, it is an album full of excellence. It builds on the sonic palette of her previous album and fleshes out the eighties sound further.
Throughout the album, you will encounter lush synthpop, sad disco and guitar chords that riff and crunch with grit. The production is layered, and the instrumentals match her lyricism, both expressing the raw emotions Mitski often channels into her music.
The album begins with “Valentine, Texas”, an ominous introduction with a funeral dirge synth line as Mitski’s glistening vocals glimmer like moonlit water. Disjointed piano chords and orchestration enter as her voice soars, making the introduction a heart thumping experience.
“Working For The Knife” follows, featuring melancholy synths and downtempo instrumentation as Mitski wistfully tells her story. She is one of the few artists who can sound as if she is drowning in sorrow and still deliver an elegant vocal performance at the same time.
We get our first taste of Mitski’s sad disco with “Stay Soft”, a song full of groove driven by piano and twinkling keyboards which ride atop fuzzy guitars. Its instrumental is dense, with sounds flickering and surging as Mitski sings candidly.
By Laurel Hell’s halfway point Mitski’s musical vision is clear. This is her struggle laid bare in songs that carve through the flesh and bone, hitting the listener’s heart, spraying a musical cacophony of blood, guts and most importantly, tears.
“Heat Lightning” and “The Only Heartbreaker” further solidifies that vision. “Heat Lightning” is sullen and drenched in atmosphere. Thanks to Mitski’s gorgeous, reverb-soaked vocals “Heat Lightning” becomes a marrying of components. Her vocals echo and entwine with an expansive combination of silky space-age synthesisers, punchy kicks and looming piano chords swelling beneath.
Whereas “The Only Heartbreaker” is an ode to the eighties with its fast-paced synth pop featuring drums and guitar melodies you would hear on an a-ha or OMD album. It is sonically bright, juxtaposing the heartbroken vocals. The song bursts into a spectacular ball of aural fire during the chorus, creating a hair-raising moment.
That prominent eighties sound found on “The Only Heartbreaker” continues on the sparkling “Love Me More”, which is comprised of icy, electrified synths that trickle and shine. Mitski’s vocals are soft like velvet and the melodies burrow deep.
After “Love Me More” comes two emotional juggernauts “There’s Nothing Left Here For You” and “Should’ve Been Me”, both heartfelt renditions of heartbreak.
“There’s Nothing Left Here for You” is a cinematic slice of what Mitski does best, painting a picture with sombre synths, bubbling kicks and forlorn vocals. Lyrically it is both sharp and poignant as she croons “You could touch fire, you could fly / It was your right, it was your life” as the instrumental builds and climaxes with such anguish. It is one of the stand-out moments on Laurel Hell and it is one of many to be found.
In contrast to “There’s Nothing Left…”, “Should’ve Been Me” offers a different sonic perspective on that same heartbreak, as the instrumental is more disco infused, buoyant, and jovial. There is an element of jangle pop as the synths and pianos come together in a flurry, while the bass rhythms rumble as the guitar strings jingle.
The song oozes atmosphere and it is a joy to listen to despite the lyrics painting a different picture. Again, that is the brilliance of Mitski’s artistry. She weaves many threads at the same time, creating beautiful songs that feel real and lived in.
Laurel Hell ends in true Mitski fashion as “Our Lamp” closes out the heartache one final time. Surging synthesisers, tambourines, bass guitar and strings (amongst other instruments) create a fitting curtain call.
Mitski has once again delivered an album that should be celebrated and most importantly, enjoyed.
Laurel Hell captures a part of the singer/songwriter’s soul and because of that, it is a human experience given life through music. Make no mistake, this is some of her best music to date and if this is the final act, well, what a send-off it is.
Words by Jake Gould