Music Reviews
Laurel Hell

Mitski Laurel Hell

(Dead Oceans) Rating - 7/10

Recently, a new Mitski album hasn’t felt like a sure thing. The impression she gave when she temporarily left public life in 2019 was one of burnout due to fame, industry nonsense, and the corrosive force of social media. But it all served as fuel instead for Laurel Hell, an ‘80s-inspired mix of heady synths and cutting lyrics that makes for another strong entry into Mitski’s canon.

Much of Laurel Hell takes the next step into some of the synth-heavy pop soundscapes that Be the Cowboy dabbled in, with none being poppier than The Only Heartbreaker. Racing with propulsive drums and shining guitar notes, the song acts like a reverse Nobody, on which Mitski is now the one pushing others away. “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief that would be,” she sings, hoping for some reaction from her partner. Stay Soft and Love Me More are nearly as catchy, the former with a swaying, New Wave bassline and the latter’s bounce making you want to dance or run for miles. 

It’s when Mitski goes weirder that she conjures songs that will dig into your soul and stay with you the most. Working for the Knife wobbles on top of a bed of synths swaying like the ocean. “I used to think I'd be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same,” she sighs at the commodification of art trapping her in a daily grind. Valentine, Texas announces itself as an eerie, Lynchian opener. That’s Our Lamp is an unexpectedly upbeat-sounding closer that Mitski turns on its head with lines about a relationship’s dying embers. “We may be ending/I'm standing in the dark/Looking up into our room/Where you'll be waiting for me,” she sings with resignation at the inevitable.

While those lively tunes are great for the most part, Laurel Hell stumbles on its slower tracks—which often feel like momentum killers. The Eno soundscapes of Everyone take too long to go anywhere. There’s Nothing Left for You and I Guess are weak retreads of material mined with Pink in the Night and Two Slow Dancers. Only the slow burn of Heat Lightning stands out thanks to creeping guitar notes, a slightly discordant keyboard, and Mitski’s vocals sung from a mask on the edge of cracking.

Laurel Hell works as a sister album to Be the Cowboy but more personal and more honed-in on a synth-heavy sound than that previous release’s sprawl. While the focus makes for a more compact listen that homes in on her themes and provides plenty to enjoy, it also feels like she’s reached the natural end of this particular road. But we shouldn’t expect Mitski to idle in one place for long. She’s emerged from the thickets of Laurel Hell more assured than ever before.