Mitski had earlier releases, but she really planted her flag near the summit of the indie/alternative mountain with 2016’s Puberty 2, especially that soaring anthem of identity and lost love, ‘Your All-American Girl.’ The U.S. National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered had that as the number 2 song of the year, behind only Beyonce. 2018’s album, Be the Cowboy, deservedly topped multiple “best of” lists. The New Yorker gave her an in- depth profile, where proto punk elder statesman Iggy Pop, no less, called her ‘probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know.’
I saw her play Stern Grove in San Francisco in the summer of 2019, part of a series of free concerts among the eucalyptus out near the ocean. Audiences can be stupefied there by the fog, lavish hand packed lunches and Napa Valley red. Mitski grabbed the crowd by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It was a captivating performance. Whatever she was selling, we were buying.
This is all prelude to say that Laurel Hell is not just any release. It is one of the most anticipated of 2022. Mitski is as much of a star in the “indie/alternative” scene as one can be without “crossing-over.” While those terms are now smudged into meaninglessness, lord knows that fans can be judgmental when someone who they knew way back when is now shooting straight to number 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts and slated to open stadium shows for Harry Styles. This album comes freighted with high expectations.
So, to answer the obvious first question: no, it is not as good as Be the Cowboy, and treads into the dreaded territory of disappointment. It’s a hard standard to meet, but Mitski set it. We have her voice, that’s for sure. It’s beautiful as always. Mitski only sounds like herself and none of the many singers she inspired. But, where Be the Cowboy balanced the keyboards and the guitars and the synths, this is a synth album. There are still some of the Steve Nieve-like acoustic piano banging and Phantom of the Opera organ surges. (I thought for a literal second I even heard an inside-out quote of Tupac’s ‘I Ain’t Mad Atcha’ at the beginning of ‘Should’ve Been Me’, but I was jetlagged and had just watched the Super Bowl halftime show. I wish this song had gone with Tupac, because it actually ends up sounding like ‘Maneater.’) But, too many of the songs share a similar unnatural peppiness or, worse, dolorous droning.
You could put ‘The Only Heartbreaker’ on The Breakfast Club soundtrack and it would not only fit in, but be a standout. This is not necessarily a compliment. I spent my formative years in the decade of Reagan, big hair and long sweaters and don’t understand the appeal of 1980’s nostalgia unless it means thinking about D. Boon still being alive.
The opener, ‘Valentine, Texas’ begins the album promisingly enough. But whereas the last two album openers (‘Geyser’ and ‘Happy’) were exciting, this one is merely interest piquing and never really takes off. She begins with the line, ‘Let’s step carefully into the dark’ and right away we have our theme. She does have a way with words whether she’s addressing the dangers of love (‘Open up your heart like the gates of hell’) or the difficulty of her chosen profession (‘I cry at the start of every movie/I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things, too.’) Mitski has always had a complicated relationship with her own art and she wears it on her sleeve in her lyrics, which often wrestle with loneliness and regret.
That second line is from the standout song of the album, ‘Working for the Knife.’ This was the first single released last year and probably unreasonably goosed expectations for the album even more. She delivers her relatable lyrics of malaise (‘I used to think I’d be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine the road appears the same’) with an instrumentally balanced and lovely tune. The music delivers a promise of hope that the words doubt. The song is in argument with itself; it’s an exciting tension, one that mesmerized that San Francisco crowd in 2019.
This is followed by ‘Stay Soft’ a pleasing enough bit of disco, carried by Mitski’s bracingly clear voice if nothing else. But, then the album gets musically stagnant. The two bits of upbeat eighties fluff already mentioned are interspersed with some real sonic downers (‘Everyone,’ ‘Heat Lightning’ and ‘I Guess’). These are metronomic in rhythm and sound like someone set the synth to Sad Mode and went for a walk. A little of this goes a long way.
‘Love Me More’ has some promise and I was crossing my fingers for the guitars to chime in on the chorus. Alas, the bulk of the album sounds like the guitars and drums were left in the van. The album closer “That’s Our Lamp” is a buoyant tune with a rueful vignette of a fading romance. I wish the album had more like it.
This is not an anti-synth screed. But, we are talking about Mitski here. This album might make you forget that she can absolutely shred on guitar and bass. If I want to listen to Let’s Eat Grandma, I will. (I like Let’s Eat Grandma, to be clear.)
What’s next for Mitski? She has said before that she would walk away from music. I certainly hope she keeps it up; she’s a special artist. However, I also hope that if she looks to the artists of past decades searching for a muse, she lands on someone like Joan Jett and not Hall & Oates. But, I have learned from Mitski’s music that hope can be elusive.
Words by Rick Larson