Mitski is always beckoning, no matter how she may recoil. Her work stacks contradictory compulsions: She wants, and wants to be wanted; at any moment, she’ll offer herself up, or be taken, or take. She has all the power, and none. She can’t have enough or be enough for even herself.
A laurel hell, the namesake of her latest album, is a maze where thickets of beautiful flowers grow knotty and impassable, the plants poisonous. Laurel Hell also evokes resting on one’s laurels—getting lazy or complacent about future achievements because you’re focused on past success. It’s almost ironic to consider this ’80s-electro-rock turn unfinished or lax, but such self-criticism is ingrained in Mitski’s work. As she wades into the maze of performance, she’s continually choked by her own ceaseless desire, the enticing flowers disguising the plant’s vicious, toxic acid.
Laurel Hell encapsulates the parasitism inherent to performing for consumption and then being consumed. Videogame-glitchy track “Love Me More” is a nod to toxic fandom—something that contributed to Mitski’s departure from social media—as well as the music industry churn. Twinkling synths emulate the inevitable climb: releasing art for yourself, needing fans’ love to buoy that art, and ultimately becoming overwhelmed by that very love.
The drug of ambition necessitates this cycle, but it leaves the creator vulnerable. To avoid being fully exposed, Mitski refuses to define Laurel Hell’s narrator. In opener “Valentine, Texas” (“Who will I become tonight”), she lands on someone “my sweetheart’s never met.” There’s a “sex god” in “Stay Soft,” and a stubborn artist on “Everyone.” On “I Guess,” Laurel Hell again submits to “learn to be somebody else.”
On “Should’ve Been Me,” Mitski sings: “You wanted me but couldn’t reach me.” That is why Laurel Hell cobbled together all these selves: It renders the narrator unknowable, but that intangibility can be off-putting.
Whenever Laurel Hell tries to be aloof, futility flutters in. “Nothing I can do / Nothing I can change” in “Heat Lightning” is perhaps the album at its most hopeless, but assuming the “only heartbreaker” role (“I’ll be the loser in this game / I’ll be the bad guy in the play”) and the necessary chase of “Love Me More” (“When I’m done singing this song / I will have to find something else / To do to keep me here”) are both thick with inevitability. Similarly, the mechanical, methodical “Everyone” makes choice appear impossible: Advised against a path, the narrator takes it anyway, sacrificing herself to the unknown.
When Mitski veers jauntier and more upbeat, the album soars. Standout “Should’ve Been Me” sounds like a wink with its honky, toybox-style piano, although it’s primarily apologetic and regretful. She’s similarly in command on “The Only Heartbreaker,” which moves from another’s perceived perfection to her own somewhat defiant failures. There’s a joyful power in being the destroyer, the only one capable of ruining. Defiance and command ring sincere because, despite any perceived obstinance or control, the album’s confidence is underpinned by needling insecurity—one slow song sends you backwards (and the uptempo ones might, if you follow the lyrics closely).
The downbeat, slower songs render the album denser, less colorful. They hearken to Mitski’s second effort, Retired from Sad, New Career in Business, with their simple, monotone percussive backdrops and deliberate vocal delivery, a disappointment among the album’s breadth of innovation. “Heat Lightning” avoids the slow-song trap best: Its drums imbue it with the weight of ancient, around-the-fire storytelling, and her fatalistic surrender appears gorgeously inevitable amid a tumultuous, moving world.
Just as every upbeat song is a chase or journey, Laurel Hell as a whole is a march, working toward that which hurts you for the little rewards it offers. On her last album, Be the Cowboy, as Mitski “turns away from the hands reaching for her, she’s outstretching her own to the sky.” In Laurel Hell, she’s racing into our arms again and again, each time gleefully bouncing off into the darkness. Next time she comes, we won’t recognize her.
Caitlin Wolper is a journalist and poet whose work examines culture, music, identity and more. She’s written articles for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vulture and others, and her poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, is out now via Finishing Line Press. She gets very excited about music, line breaks, and memes on Twitter at @CaitlinWolper.