Mitski is back. Arriving in the wake of her Oscar-nominated song, “This Is Life”, for Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), which she performed with David Byrne, her latest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, signals a confident new turn toward self-acceptance, leaving behind the anxieties she has grappled with in the past. Many of these apprehensions were personal in scope, though they equally spoke to the demands and ambiguities of being a female singer-songwriter in the present. By way of illustration, let me take a brief detour.
In her influential essay “Two Paths for the Novel” (2008), Zadie Smith outlined two competing trends in the contemporary Anglophone novel, which can be described as lyrical realism versus avant-garde experimentation. Her examples were Netherland (2008) by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder (2005) by Tom McCarthy. The former is an evocative post-9/11 novel about New York, immigration, marriage, race, friendship, and cricket – essentially, a social novel that attempted to capture big-picture ideas and themes through the grounded details of one man’s existential crisis.
In contrast, Remainder concerns a narrator recovering from a near-fatal accident. Driven to reconstruct his life, he eventually stages a series of re-enactments to reassemble his past from memory – a course of events that becomes increasingly perverse and violent. The novel is less a depiction of time and place like Netherland and more a Beckettian exercise in asking what it means to depict time and place. Smith notes that their mutual explorations of authenticity unite these two novels.
I raise this essay of Smith’s as one possible way of framing the dilemmas and opportunities of the female singer-songwriter in the present. On the one hand, there are artists like the late Whitney Houston, Sade, Adele, Celine Dion, Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey who, to different degrees, have inherited and embraced the paradigm of the female pop vocalist as defined by canonical figures like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Diana Ross. This paradigm has been heteronormative in scope, navigating a line between the male gaze and feminine admiration.
On the other hand, there are artists who have rejected this chanteuse role, like Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Tracy Chapman, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill, and Courtney Love in favor of directly critiquing the patriarchal norms of popular music. They have spurned criteria for beauty and sexuality that have fundamentally shaped the mainstream path of success for women in the music industry. Resisting the male gaze, whether through androgyny, militant feminism, or lyrical disregard, these artists have subverted gendered commercial expectations by refusing established roles. Recent collaborations like boygenius – akin to predecessors such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney – have further emphasized a tactic of collective solidarity against such audience and market demands.
Yet, following Smith, these competing approaches both reflect aspirations of authenticity. The recordings of Houston, Dion, Beyoncé, and so forth have dived deeply to document emotionally what it means to be a woman in the world. The work of Smith, Anderson, Chapman, and so forth has resisted the constraints of such characterization to ask a different set of questions pertaining to being a woman and beyond. Notably, both approaches have proven popular and lucrative.
Equally significant, a number of performers have negotiated the space in between. Madonna, Björk, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, and Billie Eilish, for example, have self-consciously embodied pop feminine stereotypes while also seeking to deconstruct them, whether lyrically or through the consistent reinvention of their images against audience expectations.
Mitski (Mitski Miyawaki) is another artist who has gradually come to inhabit this middle ground. Her working ethos has tended to side with those musicians who have undermined social and market conformities. However, her sublime voice has enabled her to slip into chanteuse mode when she likes. A tension between argument and concession subsequently courses across her work, which appears to have reached a form of temporary resolution on The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We.
On prior LPs, Mitski’s ambivalence and discomfort toward the conventional paradigm of the female vocalist has frequently been expressed in her choice of instruments and with the occasionally disruptive track listing on her albums. In her debut, Lush (2012), for example, some songs foreground her voice in a more traditional, piano-backed manner (“Liquid Smooth”), which are then interrupted by the inclusion of a more abrasive, electric guitar-based track that seeks to unsettle the listener from falling into complacency (“Brand New City”).
Her best work – songs like “Your Best American Girl” from Puberty 2 (2016) and “A Pearl” and “Remember My Name” from her breakthrough Be the Cowboy (2018) – has combined these two impulses of grit and beauty. The indie rock sound she has embraced across her six preceding albums has provided a pliable identity encompassing these opposing tendencies, protecting her from easy assessment and stereotyping.
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We marks a shift away from these earlier leanings toward a more mainstream sound, one that might even be called Americana. Hints of this could be heard on songs like “Lonesome Love” from Be the Cowboy. More recently, however, she has been living in Nashville, whose heritage subtly permeates this LP. The third track, “Heaven”, recalls the classic Nashville Sound of Patsy Cline and the country music of the 1950s and 1960s with its pedal steel guitar and atmospheric vocal production. These old-school qualities are repeated in “I Don’t Like My Mind” and “The Frost”, which are in the vein of the 1970s countrypolitan style (think: Charlie Rich). They come across as updated jukebox tunes you might encounter in a late-night roadside honkytonk. I mean that in a good way.
The slow dance number “My Love Mine All Mine” is a standout track, with Mitski’s gorgeous vocals backed once more with pedal steel guitar and piano. It also captures the resident theme of The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We regarding love – its affirmation, its difficulty, and its absence. Though not a wholly original theme, she treats it more as a social condition experienced as part of the wider world rather than an insular situation between two people, as in her past albums.
With this approach in mind, there are lyrical references to insect life, buffalo, God, the devil, heaven, snowfall, and walking alone at midnight. The track “I’m Your Man”, another standout that recalls the subdued and insistent songcraft of Elliott Smith (and Leonard Cohen), has the nocturnal sounds of crickets and dogs barking mixed in the background. The punctuated chorus of “Family!” on the opening track “Bug Like an Angel” further announces the communal themes that unfold across the LP.
The bleak title The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We also underscores a shared milieu. Returning to Zadie Smith, Mitski seems dissatisfied with experimental abstraction – staging re-enactments of her life. Instead, this album has a type of lyrical realism, with Mitski intent on documenting and conveying details that speak to a bigger picture. It follows that she is more empowered on this album.
Mitski’s forte in her work has been her willingness to discuss her vulnerabilities. In The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, she imparts the idea that such vulnerabilities are better understood as mutual. The album title intentionally obscures the beauty within. By the same stroke, her new record suggests that such beauty can only be achieved by being vulnerable together.