Mitski Creates More Cosmic Shafeshits On ‘Laurel Hell’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

After a brief hiatus that had her questioning her future in music, Mitski has made her return with her sixth album, Laurel Hell, a tight collection of singalong hooks alongside calloused ruminations on the nature of the muse as well as where her career has led her along with the toll it might have taken. 

Aesthetically Laurel Hell is one of Mitski’s most consistent albums to date, seeing her shy away from the stylistic switch-ups and clashes that have marked her past projects and leaning further into synth-pop and disco influences hinted on some of Be The Cowboy’s biggest tracks. This ends up working both to the album’s benefit and its detriment. Mitski writes and performs quite well in this mode and she uses her uncanny ability to turn upbeat pop songs inside out to great effect here. The subtle intensity and hint of menace in her vocals push the catchy chorus of “Stay Soft” into a perfectly off-kilter groove, and “Should’ve Been Me” finds he singing almost nonchalantly about being cheated on over a bright swinging beat that becomes slowly overwhelmed by orchestration. 

While almost all of the songs on Laurel Hell, taken individually, make for strong additions to Mitski’s catalog, the melodies and production start to feel interchangeable from track to track through the album, and with relatively few curveballs thrown into the mix, there is a feeling of sameness that starts to settle in on repeat listens. This is especially present in the record’s first half, where a good chunk of the songs plod along at a similar, reserved pace, but crops up with the more upbeat songs as well. 

This album shines the brightest in the moments when Mitski and her producer/collaborator Patrick Hyland lean into their more avant-garde impulses as they do on “Heat Lightning”, which shapeshifts remarkably from an intro that calls to mind The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” into a sweeping indie-folk chorus before settling onto a bed of sparse drums and chirping synths, or on the laser beam guitar solo that send the lead single “The Only Heartbreaker”  into the stratosphere before its final refrain.

Elsewhere the crashing drum fills and orchestrations that interrupt the forlorn “There’s Nothing Left for You” snap the listener to attention, but are also integral to appreciating the emotional stakes at the heart of the song, and on the album-closing “That’s Our Lamp” Mitski returns to the claustrophobic disco of Be The Cowboy’s “Nobody” but augments it with a bit of ABBA-sized grandeur for one of her most jubilant-sounding tracks to date.

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