Despite being a contractually obligated record, Laurel Hell nonetheless proves successful in landing its messaging.
Following a genuine attempt to quit music altogether, Mitski returns with Laurel Hell, another deeply personal record about her struggles with artistry and articulations of identity. Following an intense tour schedule for Be the Cowboy and a massive uptick in popularity due to some viral TikTok sounds, the stage was fairly well set to propel the performer to international stardom. And while that remains true, the complications presented on her latest album express an uncertainty regarding what she enjoys, an assertion of self in the face of fans that holds her dear.
The why of it all, then, is that Laurel Hell was a contractual obligation. At the end of 2019, Mitski claimed she was going to be leaving the music industry indefinitely. There was an immediate uproar amongst her massively online fandom, causing speculations about her health, the announcement’s potential as mere publicity for another album, or the validity of this truly being “the end.” In the midst of trying to quit, Mitski was reminded of the documents she had signed for her label indicating that she would complete another album. And so, here’s Laurel Hell, an achingly despondent album about the pains of artistic and personal freedom, of being an individual within the claustrophobia of the public eye. Lead single “Working for the Knife” is a pining for normalcy and for understanding an unclear path ahead. Where Mitski’s previous work grappled with her identity as an Asian-American, culminating in her statement that she doesn’t really align with that label, on this record the identity that she grapples with is that of artist, with the nature of that as a choice looming large through her lyrical explorations. Ruminations abound, but answers are in short supply — she doesn’t have it all figured out, and she doesn’t want people to think that she does either. Her lyrics are raw and bleak, finding little hope for the future, even in its uncertainty. And yet, the sound of her instrumentation retains the lighter tones that marked her previous work, adding a palpable, affecting dissonance and executed with clean precision, presenting a certainty that her lyrics lack.
Perhaps begrudgingly on the artist’s part, Laurel Hell nonetheless proves successful in landing its messaging. Despite the TikTokification of her fanbase, the blurring lines between artist and audience that this particular form of social media engenders, and the general attitudes and aims of artists who make it big on the platform, there remains a division between creator and consumer, something Mitski here grapples with in painful detail. But even after her attempt to jettison her musical career entirely, Mitski still committed to a tour and promotional cycle for Laurel Hell, refusing to sideline a record that stands as an expression of wounded self. Indeed, its very existence is proof of concept — art is hard, for any number of reasons professional or personal. While the future holds no such contractually-obligated compromises from Mitski and her musical outlook is murkier than ever, it’s in her willingness to confront these often unspoken, difficult truths as much as her wonderful craft that her legacy has been cemented.
Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2022 | Part 3.