Mitski fans have been impatiently awaiting her latest album, Laurel Hell, released on February 4. After announcing that she was retiring from the industry, she returned due to contractual obligations. Due to her qualms about releasing the album, many of the tracks deal with themes of disillusionment. Although most of her albums have a dark tone, Laurel Hell is particularly dismal in its portrayal of autonomy and authority. Mitski is known for her particular brand of “sad girl” music, a label she resents, and the latest album examines this description as she questions her artistry and image. Despite the often depressing tone, the upbeat synth tracks and catchy choruses provide for an enjoyable listen, and avid Mitski listeners and new fans alike will enjoy the album.
The album opens with “Valentine, Texas,” where Mitski opens herself up to the public gaze once again. The song opens with, “Let’s step carefully into the dark / Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around,” creating connotations of performing for an audience. This is furthered with the lines, “Who will I be tonight? / Who will I become tonight?” where Mitski questions her artistic presence and autonomy in the role. This song sets the stage for the rest of the album where she explores her artistry and performance in general. “Valentine, Texas” can also be read as a song about a performance for a romantic partner, and many of Mitski’s songs have double meanings that apply to her career as a musician and personal life, as well.
“Working for the Knife” furthers the theme present in the first track, with Mitski describing living under a metaphorical “knife” that oppresses her. Mitski has shared that she wants the knife to be whatever the listener needs it to be, whether it be capitalism, mental illness, or otherwise. The song describes the emotional highs and lows of artistry, as well as the pitfalls of growing older and cynical. She writes, “I used to think I’d tell stories / But nobody cared for the stories I had about / No good guys,” referencing her label as the “sad girl” artist who writes about her love life woes.
Another track that deals with her lack of autonomy as an artist and human being is “Everyone,” where Mitski reflects on her choices as an individual. She describes deliberately making choices that go against the grain, only to realize that she’s not free, but “back in the line again.” This could perhaps be a reference to her contractual obligations to create this album, where being “back in the line again” is being forced to make music despite trying to take a different path. She similarly examines her lack of control in “Heat Lightning,” where she struggles with insomnia. She concludes that, “There’s nothing I can do / Not much I can change / I give it up to you / I surrender,” giving power to the universe instead of her overwhelming thoughts.
Laurel Hell is a contemplative listen, and although many of its themes relate to artistry, it’s relatable to a wide audience. It’s bittersweet to appreciate the album while knowing Mitski didn’t entirely want to write it, but as a Mitski fan, it would be impossible for me not to enjoy the album.