Mitski’s greatest songs ooze. Their protagonists can’t keep their feelings contained: words spill out, uncouth and abrupt, articulating desires that can be as unwieldy and upsetting as they are romantic.
On her early records Mitski – full name Mitski Miyawaki – wrote about gratuitous desire with a sense of witty fatalism, her lyrics often combining literary texture, rom-com fantasy and mordant comedy in the manner of a perfect tweet: “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony,” she sang on 2014’s “Townie”, “and I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground”. The surfaces of these songs were often mottled and chapped, made dry and scaly by the layers of distortion and guitar noise that Mitski inherited from the DIY punk scenes she came up in. It was a heady combination.
Because of her lyrics, and because of her music’s occasional proximity to the emo tradition, Mitski’s music was often perceived as confessional – a tag that dogs female singer-songwriters, who are rarely allowed the same concessions to artistry as men. Of course, sometimes Mitski’s music was confessional: “Your Best American Girl”, a soaring, wounded highlight from her 2016 breakout Puberty 2, finds her recalling a relationship that failed based on the insurmountable differences between Mitski’s Japanese upbringing and her partner’s American one:
Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my
mother raised me
But I do, I finally do
And you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help trying to be the best
Even at its most confessional, an acidic, deeply postmodern sense of humour burns holes in Mitski’s music. There’s a grand, ironic twist to “Your Best American Girl”: the song’s melody is a dead ringer for Wheatus’s corny-great classic “Teenage Dirtbag”, the archetypal tale of American teenage angst. Even when baring her soul, Mitski can’t help but acknowledge the cliché; she makes “main character” songs for people who know that every main character is another meaningless speck of dust in a vast, cruel cosmos.
Puberty 2 put Mitski on a path to stardom that still seems to make her deeply uncomfortable. Her 2018 record Be the Cowboy forwent the ’90s indie veneer of its predecessors in favour of warm, classicist pop: pulsating synths and upright pianos underscored songs that used relationship tropes to explore a vast, eviscerating loneliness that came with fame. Alienated by the obsessive nature of the fandom around her and unwilling to give up details of her personal life as pop stars are expected to, Mitski plunged into her generalist instincts.
She applied her idiosyncratic style to familiar archetypes – the ageing couple dancing one last dance, the strong woman spurned by an uncaring man, a figure desperate for one last rendezvous with an ex – seemingly in an attempt to deflect attention from her personal life and back onto her art. Even if Be the Cowboy felt a little too perfect – its taut structures engendering a glacial coolness – Mitski’s one-liners were irresistible: “Nobody butters me up like you, and / Nobody fucks me like me,” she sang on “Lonesome Love”.
Once the tour for Be the Cowboy was over, Mitski announced an indefinite hiatus, worn out by an increasingly bright spotlight. Be the Cowboy was named album of the year by Pitchfork, New York magazine and a swag of other legacy publications. Its biggest single, the loneliness anthem “Nobody”, found a successful second life on TikTok, where teens dance and mime to its effusive, absurdist chorus. In her time away, Mitski became more famous than ever.
Mitski says she intended to leave music entirely after the release of Be the Cowboy. Her sixth album Laurel Hell isn’t a case of creative resurgence after burnout: per a Rolling Stone cover story, Mitski was contractually obliged to turn in another record to her label. Although that may be one of the more perfunctory reasons to produce art, you wouldn’t know that from Laurel Hell: even though it’s a decidedly more moderate body of work than the spangled Be the Cowboy, it’s one of Mitski’s most beautiful records yet, an album that comes alive in its quietness.
There are grand, theatre-filling pop songs here – Mitski will play to a sold-out crowd at New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall later this year – but for the most part the atmosphere on Laurel Hell is temperate and meditative. Over woody, droning arrangements, Mitski sings about her usual subjects with new wisdom but without losing her sharp wit. In contrast with the recklessly uncontained protagonists of Mitski’s past, the characters that populate Laurel Hell tread more cautiously. “Let’s step carefully into the dark,” Mitski sings on “Valentine, Texas”, on the album’s very first line. “Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around.”
Laurel Hell is undoubtedly Mitski’s most modern album yet, in that its hardest-hitting songs are about work, about the grind, about the sheer exhaustion of having to make money at all. On “Working for the Knife”, Mitski sings about the pains of making art for a living with uncommon frankness: “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too / But I’m working for the knife”. The song is underscored by a soft clatter, the mechanical din of a factory floor. Mitski is the product on the conveyor belt as well as the worker boxing it up for consumption.
“Working for the Knife” is only the first of many increasingly dark allusions to the drudgery and depletion of life as a working artist. “I opened my arms wide to the dark / I said take it all, whatever you want / I didn’t know that I was young,” she sings on “Everyone”, another ballad set to elliptical, droning synths. On “Love Me More”, the thrill of feeling adored by a crowd carries its own danger: “I need you to love me more / Love enough to fill me up,” she sings, with treacherous onstage highs reflected in the song’s soaring, gilded chorus. If Mitski’s use of pop cultural tropes once served to make her love songs more cutting, on “Love Me More” the love song itself is a trope – a device to sketch out the pitfalls of work.
When she does write about love and sex on Laurel Hell, as on the bouncy “Stay Soft”, it’s in a similarly dark vein, her lyrics littered with horror signifiers: “Fury, pure and silver / You grip it tight inside / Like a knife / It glints in your eye.” Although Laurel Hell is occasionally less funny than past Mitski records, she’s still a peerless lyricist, impressionistic at one moment and devastatingly clear the next.
Most of Laurel Hell is simmering and patient, so much so that when Be the Cowboy-style fireworks do spring forth, on songs such as “Love Me More” or “The Only Heartbreaker”, it can feel genuinely dizzying, a moment of dynamism throwing the rest of the album’s weight off-balance. This feels intentional – perhaps a way of clarifying that, while pop stardom may be an ideal goal for Mitski’s fans, it still feels destabilising for Mitski herself. In that sense, Laurel Hell feels like a means to an end, a way for Mitski to continue making art without it feeling reckless or soul-destroying. Mitski’s songs no longer ooze, no longer swell with emotion and anxiety, no longer explode with simmering tension – but, somehow, they’re more gratifying than ever.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Quiet grandeur".
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