After releasing her fifth album ‘Be The Cowboy’ in 2018, Mitski found herself at an impasse. As touring wrapped up for her best record to date – a baroque blending of gothic grandeur and twisted disco – she told fans that, after a milestone show at New York’s Central Park the following year, she’d be stepping away from the stage “indefinitely”.
It seems the cost of making art had taken its toll. Mitski seems to understand that to be an artist is to bear a hidden part of yourself: in cutting deep down into the messy, tangled guts of life, the best musicians help us to understand our own lives a little better by putting theirs out for the world. Yet as the similarly eviscerating Angel Olsen put it to NME last year: “Who do I look to? Somebody once said to me: ‘You should listen to your songs sometime’. I don’t get my songs; I give those away.”
Mitski’s sixth record ‘Laurel Hell’ examines many of these same questions, and perhaps this drive to dig deeper and deeper without respite is what she’s referring to with the title of first post-hiatus single ‘Working For The Knife’; the song’s sleazy synths grind like they’re soundtracking a Twin Peaks landscape shot drenched in wet mist. Atop the lush ‘80s strut of ‘Love Me More’ she takes this idea further, branding her impulse to make art as “the itch” that she’s “not supposed to scratch”.
As the boundaries between art and self-worth blur, she’s backed by theatrical, ABBA-style keyboard melodies. “I need you to love me more.” she pleads, adding: “love enough to clean me up.” Glimmering and whirling, ‘Stay Soft’ feels like a protective arms-around love song – but it mostly feels addressed to its own author. “You stay soft, get eaten,” she sings, “only natural to harden up.” In lines like this, she prods at the uncomfortable tipping point where an artist’s pain and brutal honesty becomes a saleable commodity.
With each record, Mitski’s sound has grown bigger and grander – all while keeping the raw drama of her piano-driven 2012 debut album ‘Lush’ and 2016’s ‘Puberty 2’’s air of haunting gloom. Much like ’Be The Cowboy’ stand-out ‘Nobody’, ’Laurel Hell’ often pairs darkness with strobing lights (see: ‘Should’ve Been Me’ and ‘Love Me More’). After exploring the isolation of feeling like a “nobody“, Mitski’s explorations of being somebody prove just as compelling.
Release date: February 4
Release label: Dead Oceans