Album Review: Mitski - Laurel Hell
About a year and a half after I began regularly writing about music—both for my own site, and elsewhere—and, like, seven or eight months after the opportunity to write the monthly backpage “humor” column for an arts and culture publication, I found myself with a job in a newsroom. The press pass I was given, and the business cards I handed out, claimed I was a “reporter,” though for the two years I worked within the newsroom, I was remiss to refer to myself that way.
I always wound up calling myself a news writer.
Not having a background in journalism was an issue—not a huge issue, or a dealbreaker, but it put me at a disadvantage for almost the entire time I held onto the job. It was maybe within the first week that my editor explained he and I were “going to have a problem” over my usage of the Oxford comma, which, I quickly learned, was not included in the Associated Press Stylebook.
Not having a background in journalism was an issue—but I could write, and had been writing, and that strength alone was what got me in the door for an interview in the first place.
There was a point early when I think I was excited, or at the very least, grateful, to have the opportunity to write for a living. And I am uncertain when, in those two years, my feelings began to shift, but there became a point where I was no longer excited, and no longer felt grateful—I had become resentful, often bored, uninspired, and frustrated, with what I found myself writing about, or was asked to write.
And because that was how I spent my day—in a cubicle, huddled over an outdated computer, writing about things I had no interest in or at times literally did not understand1, my own writing—the “humor” column, and music writing especially—started to suffer. Rather than something creative that I looked forward to, or felt enthusiasm about, sitting down and putting my fingers on the keyboard became an enormous chore.
I think this is maybe what Mitski Miyawaki would call “working for the knife.”
A month before the official announcement of Mitski Miyawaki’s sixth full-length, Laurel Hell, her first since the landmark 2018 Be The Cowboy, there was just the single, “Working For The Knife,” released alongside the dates for a lengthy spring of 2022 tour that sold out within minutes.
And when I think of “Working For The Knife,” four months after I first heard it in early October, I think about two things—the first is a joke on Twitter that described the song as “like going to therapy, but feeling worse when you’re done”; and the second is the song’s mournful opening line, “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.”
I am uncertain if this still happens to her, but a number of years ago, my wife would become incredibly sad after she had watched what she deemed a really great, or really impressive movie—sad because, as a filmmaker herself, she struggled with the notion of never making anything nearly as impactful as what she had just watched.
And that’s the thing with art—isn’t it?
Especially when you, yourself, are an involved in the arts—visual arts, film making, music, literary. You hope to be inspired by the art you take in—that it pushes you, in some way, to be better, or to strive for something more. But it’s a difficult balance to strike between inspiration, and feeling overwhelmed with doubt toward your own capabilities.
And that’s the thing with art—isn’t it? Many try to find that balance between the ability to remain creative, and what they might have to do to earn a living—to provide for themselves and perhaps their families.
Working for the knife.
Laurel Hell is fascinating and dazzling enough that it doesn’t need a compelling origin story to make it an album worth listening to, or being attentive of—and my worry is that, even simply being the most recent effort from a marquee artist Miyawaki is not enough, and that it will be difficult for the album to shake the background of its creation, looming over it, as a whole, like a shadow.
It has been well documented in the press leading up to the release of Laurel Hell, but near the end of the tour in support of Be The Cowboy, a theatrical, demanding show night after night Miyawaki was ready to walk away from it all—no more touring, no more albums.
Leaving her career behind, arguably at a height she maybe didn’t expect it to ascend to so quickly after her profile started to rise following the release of her fourth album, Puberty 2, was not that easy, though. Even with an independent label like the Secretly Canadian subsidiary Dead Oceans, there are still contracts involved, and Miyawaki, much to her chagrin, realized she couldn’t walk away just yet, because she owed her label one more album.
Laurel Hell could have easily been phoned in—a half hearted obligation with no tour behind it, and an unenthusiastic artist going through the motions for interviews and video shoots.
That is not the case.
Musically cut from a similar, though it is important to note it is not the same cloth that Be The Cowboy was constructed out of, Laurel Hell finds Miyawaki continuing to plunge herself further into the development of complex sonic textures through the use of myriad synthesizers and, when the song calls for it, enormous pop arranging; and lyrically, it often finds her at her most thoughtful and literate.
If Be The Cowboy was a rumination on the notion of “love,” or wanting to be loved, Laurel Hell is the aftermath—what happens when you receive love, and are loved, but at the end of the day, you find it isn’t what you wanted at all.
Structurally, Laurel Hell is built around a slow burn across the first side—a tension, even, that she more or less refuses to release until the album’s second half, which is when things begin to finally open up and expand a little, with a handful of songs designed to sound a lot brighter, dizzying, and even a little fun.
I hesitate to refer to Laurel Hell as a concept album, though it is a collection of 11 songs united by the conceit of Miyawaki’s deeply reflective and personal lyricism—often about the pitfalls of her fame and even as her lyrics are often dressed up in metaphor, she is wildly self-aware in almost every tune included.
If you were looking for any kind of mission, or thesis statement, it would be found within the first two songs, “Valentine, Texas,” and the aforementioned, “Working For The Knife.” Musically, neither are totally indicative of where she takes the album, especially as Laurel Hell continues unfolding in its latter half, but they do an impressive job of really setting the stakes and overall tone of the record—it isn’t dark, but it is dissonant; it isn’t a “claustrophobic” sounding album, but the air throughout can be surprisingly heavy.
The first half of Laurel Hell, from the way these songs are arranged, is incredibly moody—really only relaxing on the disco inspired “Stay Soft,” but even then, there is an undercurrent of uneasiness running throughout where Miyawaki never really loosens her grip on it. “Valentine, Texas,” is downright mournful in the way it opens, before it gives way to a dream-like swoon; then, later, she maintains that tension through the ominous, buzzy synths and dilapidated drum machine skittering on “Everyone,” and a jangly, woozy dirge as the album’s first side ends with “Heat Lightning.”
That somber tension continues, though is not as prevalent, in the second half of Laurel Hell—and on that second side, when that kind of aesthetic is applied to a song, it becomes much more emotionally charged, like the haunting “There’s Nothing Left Here For You,” or the penultimate track, the murky, mourning “I Guess.”
One one the things that I don’t know if it surprised me, so much, in 2018, following the release of Be The Cowboy, but it is something that I have retrospectively considered in the time that has followed when I return to the album2 is just how whimsical it can be at times, but even in that whimsy, is something to still be taken seriously. Miyawaki has a sense of humor—it’s subtle, and nothing she does sounds silly. That kind of aesthetic—think “Nobody,” or “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?,” is pushed into overdrive within Laurel Hell’s latter half, which is kind of a respite from the insular sound a bulk of the album takes on.
The album’s second side opens up with something that sounds like it was transported here from the 1980s—“The Only Heartbreaker” is among the album’s finest moments, simply in terms of how it is structured and just how infectious it is—charming, shimmering guitar licks, a pulsating electro-infused rhythm, and a gigantic chorus that soars make it an early contender for a list of the best pop songs of 2022.
You could practically say the same things about the song that comes next—the unrelentingly energetic, glistening, and voluminous “Love Me More,” which takes that, albeit reserved, disco influence found in “Stay Soft,” but here, Miyawaki shows it to the dance floor, where, buy the time the chorus its, she, and the song, absolutely lose themselves in the oscillating, frenetic rhythm. And, shortly before Laurel Hell concludes, there is one final enthusiastic repose from “Should’ve Been Me,” which pushes Miyawaki’s moments of post-disco into jaunty, winking, 1980s inspired blue-eyed soul.
A facet of Laurel Hell that struck me early on, maybe during the second listen through once my3 LP had arrived, was that Miyawaki cannot outrun the instincts of her lyricism. And what I mean by that is, in the wake of her notoriety after Be The Cowboy was released, the burnout from supporting the album, the emotional toll years of “album cycle” recording and touring had taken on her, and then her desire to leave that all behind—she can’t escape the extremely personal nature of her songwriting, despite her best efforts to be a more private individual.
Not every song, at least I don’t think, is connected to Miyawaki’s narrative arc for Laurel Hell—or, at least, there are some songs that are written and presented in such a way that they can be removed from the context of the album as a whole, and stand just fine on their own.
Miyawaki was, famously, searching for love throughout almost the entirety of Be The Cowboy—there were moments when it was sultry, or sensual, but one of the things that still amazes me, four years later, about her depictions of “love” is how relatively wholesome they were presented as—“I’m not wearing my usual lipstick—I thought maybe we could kiss tonight,” she mused on “Washing Machine Heart.”
Laurel Hell is about how heavy the weight of that love is, and if it’s a weight she wants to continue carrying around. While a majority of the album is Miyawaki’s reflections on where her career has taken her, and what it has done for her/to her thus far, there are moments where she is still writing from that place of need—“Love Me More” being (based on the title alone) the most apparent. There is a visceral desperation to the way she sings the breathless chorus, turning it into a mantra—“I need you to love me more, love me more…love enough to fill me up…love enough to drown it out, drown me out…,” she pleads while dizzying synthesizers propel the song forward.
Throughout Laurel Hell, regardless of the arrangement of the song, Miyawaki manages to find this preternatural balance between the personal or the confessional, a sense of poetic ambiguity, and wildly evocative imagery—blurring the lines between the three and doing all this within the first few lines of “Valentine, Texas,” alone—“Let’s step carefully into the dark,” she begins. “Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around. Who will I be tonight? Who I will I become tonight?”
But it is in the album’s starker, or moodier moments, when the poignancy (and at times bleakness) of her phrase turns really registers—the creeping realization that comes at the end of “Everyone”—“Sometimes I think I am free until I find I’m back in line again”; “There’s nothing left for you,” she begins on the foggy and slow motion “There’s Nothing Left Here For You.” “Nothing in this room. Try and go outside—nothing waits for you.”
Or, in Laurel Hell’s final moments, “I guess this is the end,” she resigns on “I Guess.” “I’ll have to learn to be somebody else. It’s been you and me before I was me. Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live.”
I used to think I would tell stories—but nobody care for the stories I had about no good guys
It was not during my first listen of “Working For The Knife” when the gravity of the song’s fourth verse finally registered, but when it finally did—it created a moment, like so many songs have in the past, that left me feeling both seen and attacked.
The ideas of time, levels of success, and mortality are things that have weighed on my mind for roughly the last decade—maybe even longer, really, if I am being honest. They aren’t thoughts that I find I am preoccupied with every day, or even every week, but they are there, always ready to become intrusive and unhelpful without little warning.
The most recent example of this is from a few days ago when, for no real reason at all, this thought appeared in my head, midday—“Well, I’ve only got one year left now to make it onto some ’40 Under 40’ list.”
“I used to think I’d be done by 20—now at 29 the road ahead appears the same,” Miyawaki sings on “Working For The Knife,” a song, like many of them from Laurel Hell, were written in 2019—long before the isolation of the last two years, but immediately after she wrapped her tour in support of Be The Cowboy, swearing she was finished with the music “business.” “Though maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change that I’m living for the knife.”
And that’s the thing with art—isn’t it? The difficulty, and a times, seemingly impossibility, of the balance between remaining driven, interested, and creative, providing for yourself and your family, and the things inside you that both tell you to keep going, or to keep trying, and try to convince you otherwise—that your dreams, or ambitious, are unlikely, and you should leave that behind.
Advance criticism of Laurel Hell did not exactly pan the album, but in the pieces4 I read, it was not met with the glowing praise I had anticipated it would be based on the pedigree of the artist alone. I have a penchant for falling into the habit of “reviewing the review,” but what I feel like might not have been missed, but perhaps maybe had been misunderstood, is that Laurel Hell is, at the end of the day, an album about a multitudinous nature, or a duality—it’s a human record, about the contradictory of things, but all those humanistic, organic qualities can get lost a little in the icy, off-putting way things are, at times, presented.
Laurel Hell is a lot more intelligent and a lot more clever of a record than I think people are giving it credit for—more or less being the sound of Miyawaki working through her internal, artistic conflicts in real time, with no clear resolution once it reaches the end. It’s an exercise in brevity—barely running over a half hour, which some might blame on the contractual obligation of delivering the record to her label, though the counterpoint to that is the songs don’t stick around any longer than she wants them to; she says what she needs to, then moves on, whether you, as a listener, are ready or not.
Laurel Hell, in that duality, or multitudinous nature, is an album full of extreme highs, as well as extreme lows—both in the way these songs are presented in their instrumentation and arranging, and Miyawaki’s lyrics—it makes for a fascinating listen from beginning to end, even when the pacing of the album might slow. The songs, too, are unique in that, yes, there are ones that follow a rigid verse/chorus/verse pattern—“Love Me More,” and “The Only Heartbreaker” are the most obvious, and much has been made out of the latter, which features a co-writing credit from former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson; but there are many songs on here that simply exist in their own worlds—unfolding naturally with just verse after verse, in a poetically structured nature. Moments like that do not lend themselves to signing long, or flailing around wildly while the song plays from your turntable, but it does create the opportunity to think—about art, the artist, and the knife we are all working and living for.
The album ends with the most whimsical song of the set, and perhaps the most in her canon—“That’s Our Lamp,” which, after the moody rumination of “I Guess,” is like an energetic, rollicking epilogue to the story. Musically, “That’s Our Lamp” is a the combination of a post-disco, slithering rhythm with wonky, early 1980s New Wave synthesizers—it sounds like a mess on paper, but as a brief, bright final statement on Laurel Hell, it works, setting an upbeat tone for Miyawaki’s realization there is no easy answer. “We fought again—I ran outside the apartment,” she begins, a knowing wink to the listener at the final blurring between conceit and metaphor. “You say you love me; I believe you do…’cause you just don’t like me. Not like you used to.”
“We may be ending—I’m standing in the dark,” she continues. “Looking up into our room, where you’ll be waiting for me. Thinking that’s where you loved me.”
Laurel Hell isn’t a misstep for Mitski Miyawaki—I don’t know if there even is a way to make a misstep when the sunset of her career is just barely out of reach. It is, however, not the album that I think a lot of listeners were expecting—a majority of them, I am sure, would have wanted Be The Cowboy II, and considering Miyawaki’s reservations about making this album, truly repeating herself is probably not something she was interested in doing. And we, as listeners, or the audience, should be aware of what kind of demands or expectations we put on artists who have already given so much of themselves—even though Miyawaki owed her label one final album, she doesn't owe her audience a thing.
Like its predecessor, Laurel Hell is a record that lets listeners know just how whip smart pop music is capable of being in the right hands—it’s fun at times, sure, but more than anything else, it is an album that, the more you sit with it, the reward comes from understanding the thought that went into it, and what is still churning—both for Miyawaki, for me, and maybe even for you, every time you listen.
1- Some of you might be wondering how I could write a news story about something that I truly did not understand. It’s actually easier than you might think. Many news stories I ended up writing were about elements of county government—something I neither understood, nor did I have an interest in covering. But if you take enough notes, and get enough quotes to insert from two or more people, you can string together something coherent. The same could be said for most government, or political stories, including a conversation that I had with a local state representative where I, at one point in the conversation, literally had no idea what he was talking about, but I just kept taking notes, and hoping for the best.
2- So the thing about listening to as much music as I do, and writing about as much music as I do, is that at times it is all very temporary in the sense that I listen to an album a bunch, write about it, then move onto the next thing. Over the last few years I have become hard pressed to indicate albums that I can say I both genuinely loved when they were released and still return to after how ever many years—Be The Cowboy is one of them though, but it also might help that my wife really likes it too.
3- This is, like, just a quick aside to mention that since November of 2021, I’ve been making the effort to talk myself out of buying physical albums—the amount of money I was putting into record buying was….not something I want to discuss in a footnote here, but in cutting back, I discovered something I could have realized all along—I don’t need to own every album by every artist that I have a fleeting interest in. With that being said, I had pre-ordered Laurel Hell in November, and was a little frustrated at how the United States Postal Service really fumbled the bag in getting the album to me on time—it arrived the day after its release date, which for maybe everybody else in the world, that would not be a huge deal. For me, it becomes a source of contention, for some reason, that I have to work around when listening to the album. I have to force myself to enjoy something that I was looking forward to hearing, simply because I am waiting on a fucking package to be delivered. Why am I like this? Again, not something I am at liberty to get into in a footnote.
4- I am specifically talking about the Pitchfork and Stereogum coverage of the record, and like, these folks not really agreeing with my sentiments on the record is fine, but this is more of a footnote to say that there are two ways Stereogum writes about new albums: the first is to spotlight something as an “Album of The Week,” usually on or the day before the release date; the other is to write something in advance, usually the week before it comes out, and call it the “Premature Evaluation,” which is a sophomoric attempt at humor that makes me wince every time I see it on my laptop screen.