In 2019 Mitski announced that a show in New York would be her last performance “indefinitely”. The Japanese-American musician told her fans that the break was essential for her sanity. “I sense that if I don’t step away soon,” she wrote, “my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game, in the constant churn. I don’t want to make art like that.” Her social media accounts went quiet. Her fans had no sense of how and when she might return to music.
But thank God she did. Laurel Hell, released 4 February, is texturally rich, emotionally nuanced and the best record yet of Mitski’s remarkable career.
Mitski Miyawaki, who is known mononymously, released her first three records (Lush; Retired From Sad, New Career in Business; Bury Me At Makeout Creek) in consecutive years from 2012, her steely determination to find success evident. With them she attracted a cult following of indie fans who admired her silky tenor and her skill for highly confined melodrama. The lyrics to a Mitski track often describe incandescent rage, unbearable angst or sickening desire, yet her songwriting is tightly measured and her production all the more visceral for it. It helps too that she has a real talent for shredding on her guitar, which has made her a hero to fans thrilled to see an Asian woman succeed in a rock world still dominated by white men.
Her fourth and fifth albums — Puberty 2 (2016) and Be the Cowboy (2018) — received more widespread acclaim, making Mitski not quite a mainstream artist, but something close to it (as well as significant tours of her own, she has supported major acts such as Lorde and is opening for Harry Styles this summer). Consequently she gigged relentlessly and robotically, to the extent that she now says she doesn’t remember much of that period. Looking back, she understands that she was “dissociating” as a means of survival, she said in a recent interview. What is it to be looked upon and admired when you’re not sure you admire yourself? To be known by people who you don’t know? And what does an artist’s exhausting touring schedule — particularly one so informed by dance and pushing the limits of performance — do to one’s body, as well as one’s relationships? These questions circle Laurel Hell.
It’s a sorry state of affairs that much of the most notable pop music of the last year, including new releases by Billie Eilish, Lorde and Lizzo, have reflected on the difficulties of life as a young woman in the public eye. Mitski shares their exhaustion. “I cry at the start of every movie/I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too/But I’m working for the knife,” she sings on the album’s mesmerising lead single. The song flirts with country inflections in its harmony and instrumentation, one of many unexpected turns Mitski takes on this sonically thrilling record.
The clearest conclusion from Laurel Hell is that Mitski is one of the most accomplished songwriters working today. On “Valentine, Texas”, she sings of ushering herself back into the world of music: “Once we’re in I’ll remember my way around/Who will I be tonight/Who will I become tonight?” she asks. The song is a glorious, twisted circus, with layered piano whirling beneath Mitski’s vocals, carousel-like. The singer’s audible apprehension adds an intriguing eeriness that seeps into Patrick Hyland’s production, a hint of distortion discernible as each melody collides.
Mitski understands the complexity of human emotions — God knows she has felt them, too — and doesn’t shy away from navigating them in her songs. The bracing synth- and guitar-led track “The Only Heartbreaker” — her first co-written song, with Dan Wilson (who also co-wrote “Someone Like You” with Adele) — begins as a straightforward love song until Mitski begins to question her role in a relationship, and her vocals become tinged with irony.
“Love Me More”, an Eighties-inspired pop track, is deceptively uplifting, given that it’s also a cry for help. “I need you to love me more/love me more/love me more,” Mitski sings, proudly and defiantly. Her demand is sweet in its earnestness, yet heartbreaking in its admittance of total dependence. Only Mitski could make a song that’s simultaneously as vulnerable and as euphoric as this one, the hi-hat still tapping as the song fades.
It’s this knack for contradiction that makes “Should’ve Been Me” Laurel Hell’s stand-out track. On it Mitski sings of a relationship ruined by infidelity. It begins with awful loneliness. “Well I went through my list of friends and found/I had no one to tell,” she sings, gently sombre. “I haven’t given you what you need/You wanted me but couldn’t reach me,” she explains in the chorus, and it’s right then that the sparky keyboard and percussion kicks in. The song is infectious, its riffs straight out of an Elton John bop. The opposing sentiments of the music and the lyrics ought to be jarring but the song instead has a frisson of excitement.
Mitski understands that it’s in these inconsistencies, ambivalences and paradoxes that life is most truly felt. Maybe this is why she returned to the industry that eroded her sense of self to find purpose again. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that, after walking away from music, Mitski is now excelling at it more than ever before. In some roundabout way, it makes sense.
Laurel Hell by Mitski is out now on Dead Oceans