In today’s musical landscape, it’s strange to hear that an artist chooses to experiment with pop music. Instead, so much discussion revolves around pop artists aiming to branch out into folk (Lorde’s Solar energy), rock (Halsey’s If I can’t have love, I want power) and R&B (Ariana Grande’s Positions). After the release of his album be the cowboy in 2018, indie rock singer-songwriter Mitski chose to take a pause to “find another life”. In the early months of the pandemic, however, Mitski announced a possible return.
Thus, on Laurel Hell, his sixth studio album, Mitski does the unexpected, entering the realm of synth-pop with the characteristic ferocity of his musical calligraphy. This shift towards synth-pop is not the result of the label’s will, but of the choice of the artist herself. Mitski continues to work with longtime collaborator and producer Patrick Hyland, but this time to create a new sound more suitable for radio than his previous work. It doesn’t necessarily come out of left field, as her 2018 single “Nobody” deviated from her signature indie style and into the realm of pop. Nevertheless, Laurel Hell marks a new milestone for Mitski.
Echoes of the younger, more rambunctious artist linger throughout Laurel Hell: the strangeness of its melodic ambition, the heartbreaking lyrics, its assured vocal presence. The album opens like any other from Mitski, with a soft synth pad and her warm vocal tones delighting the listener’s ears on “Valentine, Texas”. The line “Who will I become tonight?” sets the lyrical tone of the album, introducing the listener to an artist in full metamorphosis. Midway through the song, we’re brutally introduced to the artist’s new musical persona: an elusive synth-pop beast.
Conceptually, the album explores the uncharted territories of pop lyric writing, those that examine our relationships through a new lens. As Mitski described it in an interview with Apple Music’s Matt Wilkinson, “…A dominant narrative in pop music is that of the good and the bad.” At Laurel Hellshe dares to conjure up an answer to the question of what happens when the protagonist of a songwriting narrative isn’t necessarily our good guy.
Laurel Hell is an album of musical discontinuity, which makes listening often discordant but more engaging. At a modest 33 minutes in length across 11 tracks, it features some pleasingly short and straightforward songs. The track listing takes listeners from sad ballads to upbeat pop gems in the blink of an eye in moments like the transition from dark “Heat Lightning” to energetic “The Only Heartbreaker,” my two favorite songs from the album. . With such abrupt transitions, you might want to linger a little longer in one of her two worlds (indie balladry or Europop brilliance), especially since she explores both so well.
In the ballad world, Mitski develops an overview of his troubles, showing his ability to write about his problems with more experience under his belt. In one of his signature songwriting tricks, “There’s Nothing Left Here For You” turns into a heartbreaking anti-climax, which makes the listener feel pulled down accompanying a relationship that is coming to an end. ended. Conversely, in the other world, Mitski discovers a new side of herself, a confident pop phenom whose ABBA inspirations shine through. On her new single “Love Me More,” Mitski effortlessly embraces the ’80s aesthetic that dominates today’s pop with open arms.
Whichever world she chooses to explore, and how she moves between them, she remains grounded in her lyrics, which contain more astute and thoughtful observations than ever before. The second verse of “Heat Lightning” contains some of his best stories: “Heat lightning / Watch it from my doorstep / Sleeping eyed of the sky / Flutters in a dream”. Rather than having her listeners drown in grief with her, she gives us romantic advice, analyzing all of her transgressions instead of succumbing to them. Perhaps none of this would be possible without her break, a choice she recounts in “Working for the Knife.” In the song, the knife relates to her relationship to the public reception of her music, which ends with a discovery that instead of “working for the knife”, she was living for him. We can all rejoice in this profound discovery, as it seems that her absence allowed her to refine the sounds and emotions she explored on be the cowboy. This time around, Mitski is fueled less by anger and frustration and more by the passion she has for exploration, both in relationships and in music.
PJ Brown is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]