You can listen to Mitski’s entire discography in less time than it takes to watch a football game. Brevity has always been one of her main selling points; she can throw a sledgehammer directly into your heart and then yank it back out before you realize what just happened. Life imitated art for the 31-year-old singer, though, as she followed 2018’s Be The Cowboy, my personal favorite of her records, and its extensive tour, with a disappearing act. Temporarily, she was gone: no social media, no news, nothing to cling to.
Plenty of artists have deleted their social media accounts before, and plenty more have gone on a hiatus in the middle of a red-hot career. This felt different, though: the reasons for Mitski’s departure—an endless touring schedule, a need for her own identity outside of the music industry grind, and the desire for a place to call home—pointed at an exhaustion that the deeply private singer has always noted, both in interviews and in her music. So, she stepped away.
Mitski is back now, though, with her sixth album, Laurel Hell. Technically, she was back in October, when she released the lead single for the record, “Working For The Knife.” Having now listened to the entire album, “Working For The Knife” stands as a odd choice, musically, to herald her grand return. There are dancier songs, there are sadder songs, and there are better songs on Laurel Hell. There are not, however, songs that better describe the aforementioned exhaustion that comes from the conflict between making art and being a person.
“Working For The Knife” also serves as a careful entry point to the main question that permeates Laurel Hell: Who does Mitski want to be? I first heard her music back in 2014, when a coworker sent me Bury Me At Makeout Creek, her third album and the first one that made real waves. (Her first two were student projects; Lush is mostly inessential, but the excessively titled Retired From Sad, New Career In Business has some of her best early songs, including “Strawberry Blond.”) In those days, she was a singer-songwriter in the purest sense of the words: her songs were often just her guitar, her voice, and some sparse instrumentation.
Things began to change on 2016’s Puberty 2, her first real hit album. The album still mostly lived in the same neighborhood as Makeout Creek, but there were hints of a pop star waiting to burst out. “Happy” was conceptually a standard Mitski song, but forged new ground through a burst of electric drums and synths. Lead single “Your Best American Girl” was an elevation of her previous work, blasting the listener with walls of guitar sound waves that called back to the early ’90s alt rock.
It was on Be The Cowboy that the true fracture at Mitski’s core came forward. Gone were the sparse songs that littered her catalog, save for one or two for effect. In their place came songs like “Washing Machine Heart,” “A Pearl,” and, especially, “Nobody,” which starts off with the lyric, “My god, I’m so lonely” and then somehow turns into a disco-y banger.
I won’t lie, I expected Laurel Hell to fully emulate that dancier, poppier sound. After all, “Nobody” was one of the best tracks of the last decade, so why wouldn’t she try to replicate it? The new album does have a few songs that get close: “Stay Soft” sounds like a later-period Paramore song, bratty and longing in equal parts; “Should’ve Been Me” trades disco flourishes for a jaunty two-step, and is all the better for it; and closer “That’s Our Lamp” eschews Mitski’s tradition of a downbeat album finale in favor of something more hopeful.
It’s really the album’s middle core that best captures the effect that “Nobody” had on an unexpecting fandom three-plus years ago. “The Only Heartbreaker” begins with drums paying homage to Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” before tearing up the blueprint and swerving into almost new-wave synthology. It also boasts one of Mitski’s best opening lines to date: “If you would just make one mistake, what a relief that would be!” And then there’s “Love Me More,” a “Nobody” companion piece, whose downbeat verses explode into a tsunami of sound in the chorus underneath the most vulnerably longing lyrics of her career. It’s an artistic peak on an album that bounces around with no real identity or cohesion.
The struggle between who Mitski was and who she will be is where the most exhilarating moments in Laurel Hell come from, but also the most frustrating. The album’s pacing feels all over the place; “The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More” are an exhausting pair, but following up with the weakest track on the album, the morose “There’s Nothing Left For You,” drains the remaining bit of energy, and the aforementioned “Should’ve Been Me” doesn’t fully get it back. Mitski’s brevity, so often her biggest strength, also begins to work against her here; there’s so much tension here between her characteristically longing lyrics and her melodic experiments that I only wish she had put in more time for the listener to travel alongside her.
Though parts of Laurel Hell were recorded before the pandemic—”Love Me More” was one such pre-quarantine track—the restlessness here flashed me back to the early months of our long, long global nightmare. I bounced off the walls of my apartment, dipping my hands into many various hobbies. I cooked, I read, I played video games, I bought a bike, etc.
Mitski, too, let her mind wander on this record. I’m not sure it’s all the better for it; there’s no throughline to hold on to for its half-hour duration. It was always going to be hard to top Be The Cowboy, though, and I’m glad that she didn’t really try. Laurel Hell feels like the album Mitski needed to return with, one that dumps years of frustration and identity crises all over the place, and lets the listener pick up the pieces.