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Monday, February 26, 2024

In Mitski’s ‘Laurel Hell,’ we are burning along with her

A track-by-track analysis of Mitski’s latest album, “Laurel Hell,” an emotional exploration of our most nuanced emotions, backed by a deeply ‘80s sound

By ANGIE CUMMINGS — arts@theaggie.org

It has been over three years since the world was blessed with a new album from the highly elusive and profound indie-rock artist, Mitski. Since her last album, “Be the Cowboy” (2018), we have gone through not only life’s usual changes and milestones but also some of the hardest things we’ve ever had to face (i.e. a global pandemic, late-stage capitalism, the climate crisis, Zoom university, etc.). Mitski fans (myself included) have been surviving off of crumbs for the past few years — delicious crumbs albeit — and with the Feb. 4 release of Mitski’s sixth studio album, “Laurel Hell,” we feasted. 

“Valentine, Texas”

Kicking things right off, we enter a dark and synthy ‘80s melodrama. As the opener of the album, and in true Mitski fashion, this song eases us into the deep feelings of the whole album. Just barely going over 2 minutes and 30 seconds, she essentially gives listeners an opening poem steeped in existential dread, asking “Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight?” As we continue through the 11 songs of “Laurel Hell,” we are able to hear and feel Mitski’s pain, yearning and deep anguish. 

“Working for the Knife”

I personally already know this song like a close friend, as it was released as the first single off the album way back in October 2021, but it still hits just as hard with every listen. The song has a rough industrial feel to it from the first second, just as the song revolves around facing the bleak reality of adult life. Over the course of the track, you are confronted with the loss of a dream to create and achieve things as a child by the reality of working simply to make a living for the rest of your life. There is no discussion of a Mitski song without its accompanying music video, and this first visual introduction into Mitski’s album did not disappoint. While it is perhaps the most paired-down video of the album, it is still filled with symbolism, her signature form of interpretive dance and an entirely cinematic feel. 

“Stay Soft”

This song is pure poetry, plain and simple — except it’s actually full of depth and nuance, just like everything Mitski produces. This is one of her songs that is a beautiful and melodic experience from the beginning, but the darker meaning might not be revealed until a few listens later. “Stay Soft” possesses a perfect balance of tragedy and eroticism (as many Mitski songs do), painting a picture of the harmful cycle of hurt people searching for connection just to get hurt again, and subsequently hurt others. Yet again, the music video for this song cannot go unnoticed, as it is a work of art in every way, from the eerie and beautifully constructed narrative to the wholly visually appealing set design and costumes. 


Admittedly, this song did not stand out alongside all the powerful ballads of the rest of the album, but that in no way means it is not good. With a simple, steady beat backing Mitski’s slow-paced lyrics, the song does sort of function as a little resting point within the album. Considering it’s the longest song on the whole album, there are astonishingly few lyrics (with no chorus or bridges), almost making you impatient for the next song to start — perhaps this was intentional?

“Heat Lightning”

When this song (and music video) was released in December 2021, so was the announcement and entire tracklist of the album, only adding fire to the bright, burning excitement that came with listening to it. Even though this song is relatively subdued as you listen to it, this does not make it any less cathartic to passionately sing along to. Some have felt the song is about relinquishing your power to insomnia, while others see it as a surrender to forgiveness directed at either a lover or oneself. Either way you hear it, there is no denying the anxious and despondent abandonment of control. 

“The Only Heartbreaker”

Here is a perfect song for power walking, passionate lip-syncing and spinning around alone in your room. Yet another amazing single from this album that came out last year, with a beautiful yet sorrowful horror-inspired music video. While seemingly slightly contradictory yet resonating with so many, Mitski embraces being at the end of a relationship. In the opening line she admits, “If you would just make one mistake, What a relief that would be,” but then goes on to accept her inevitable role of “heartbreaker” due to the unbalance of passion in the relationship — something all too easy to relate to whether it be from platonic or romantic relationships. Once we’ve made it to this point, what else can we do but fully embrace the role assigned, and the sound of this song does just that. 

“Love Me More”

Even though this song was written before the COVID-19 pandemic even started, Mitski made a song eerily akin to what so many have felt over the past two years. “Love Me More” deals with feelings of isolation and complete disconnect from the world around her, longing for someone or something to fulfill and even distract her. The music video adds new layers to the song, with eerie themes of voyeurism, showing Mitski watch a toy version of herself and anxiously attempt to match images of herself. Much like “Working for the Knife,” this song reflects her conflicting feelings about being an artist and the industry she works for, which leaves her feeling empty but she keeps going back — much like any unhealthy relationship.

“There’s Nothing Left Here for You”

This song definitely feels like a mixture of “Everyone” (in terms of tempo) and “Love Me More” (in terms of themes). Admittedly, this is also not one of the top tracks of the album, but still possesses that perfect “Mitskian” existentialist melancholy and sincerity. Whether this one is about having nothing left for herself in relation to her job, a past lover or life in general, the feeling is real and fairly gut-wrenching. 

“Should’ve Been Me”

I am simply unable to do an unbiased review of this song; it is easily one of the best songs from the whole album. From the first four seconds you should feel an overwhelming urge to get up and walk along a dark road and snap your fingers to the beat like the Jets (yes, the gang from “West Side Story”). While the song might be about witnessing yourself slipping away from someone you love, feelings of utter loneliness and mourning of what once was, it is an absolutely bumpin’ track. There’s not much else to say about this one, it really transcends any one description — go listen to it. 

“I Guess”

This song is one of Mitski’s ethereal-sounding yet extraordinary melancholic songs about identity and connection. Yet again, it has an incredibly low number of lyrics (just two verses), but she still manages to really hit where it hurts in those two minutes. In the first verse she laments on the end of a relationship, saying “Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live,” saying what many feel yet are often too afraid to admit when they lose someone that was their everything.

“That’s Our Lamp”

Even though this song might be slightly overshadowed by ones that come before it in monumentality, this nostalgic track is the perfect way to close out the album. Yet again, the sound is light and airy, with ‘80s undertones all around, while the subject matter is oh-so bleak. Unlike other Mitski songs, this one seems to tell an almost anecdotal short story; a lover fades out of love, the fighting builds up, but they can’t seem to admit it’s the end, and Mitski clings onto a memory of their real love. 

Written by: Angie Cummings — arts@theaggie.org



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