Mitski is back, and if it sounds like she never left. Perhaps that’s because she wrote most of the songs for Laurel Hell in 2018 or even before. She and producer Patrick Hyland didn’t finish mixing the album until May 2021. The results of the long gestation period give the music a kind of weird timelessness. The record seems like an artifact from the past that somehow seems relevant in the present. It could be a hip version of dance music from the 1980s performed by an ambitious new wave band with Elvis Costello re-writing the lyrics during the times of COVID.
Consider a tune like “Love Me More”. Mitski sings about her constant craving for love and attention over a drum-machine groove right out of beat-heavy hits like “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Maniac”. The vocals and rhythm are slightly distorted and imply the protagonist is crazy in her obsessions. She croons about the future as a threat to the present. “We’ll pretend it ends tomorrow,” Mitski earnestly advises her lover as the method for giving one’s all in the immediate moment. Except one can tell the singer doesn’t believe it. She wants to drown in love, but she doesn’t really want to die. She’d rather stay in her room and never leave.
Mitski frequently mixes the pre-COVID love song trope about the danger of opening one’s heart to a stranger with the more contemporary fear of just going out into the world. She keeps the details vague. On songs such as “Stay Soft”, it’s unclear if she’s being sexually explicit or coy with lines such as “Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell / You stay soft, get beaten / Only natural to harden up / You stay soft, get eaten.” Is she singing about an impotent penis and a blow job or something more metaphorical? The answer doesn’t matter as much as the intimacy of the expression.
As a whole, the songs bemoan the passing of time. Mitski addresses the topic personally on “Working for the Knife” and “Everyone” with lines like “I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me” and “I didn’t know that I was young.” The music remains in a dance groove and frequently employs repetition to suggest that nothing ever changes, except the singer. In terms of the number of actual instrumentalists, it’s mostly Mitski (keys) and producer Hyland (guitar, percussion, and synthesizer) with contributions by Elizabeth Chan (drums), K. Marie Kim (additional keys), Evan Marien (bass guitar), and Brooke Waggoner (piano) on selected cuts. The vocals are purely Mitski’s.
The album takes its title, Laurel Hell, from nature. Mountain laurels are a sweet-smelling poisonous plant that can trap one in its boughs. This ploy has no purpose. The laurels don’t feed upon human remains. There are no specific references to the plant in the lyrics. By giving the album this title, Mitski implies love itself is the toxic trick. It causes suffering without reason. She offers this record as a warning sign about the dangers of love.