‘Laurel Hell’ is one heavenly album


Album art for the new record “Laurel Hell” by Mitski. Used for identification purposes. Graphic sourced from Genius. Protected copyright of Dead Oceans/Mitski.

Katrina Sanville, Arts Editor

For some artists, straying out of their established sound can be challenging and downright career ending. However, for alternative singer-songwriter Mitski, the change in tune with her sixth album’s release may be a refreshing change of pace for both herself and her fanbase.

While a melodramatic, melancholy sound has become synonymous with Mitski and her music, “Laurel Hell” delivers a slightly more upbeat tone to the singer-songwriter’s discography. Though the lyrics are common to what Mitski is known for—songs of heartbreak, struggling to get by in an oppressive society, isolation and vulnerability—the album is primarily composed of upbeat instrumentals that sound straight out of a retro mixtape. Mitski herself describes the album as “…a soundtrack for transformation, a map to the place where vulnerability and resilience, sorrow and delight, error and transcendence can all sit within our humanity, can all be seen as worthy of acknowledgment, and ultimately, love,” as stated in an interview with Variety (1).

However, the synth and cheery backing tracks serve as a perfect disguise for the album’s themes. As does the name of the release—“Laurel Hell”—which, according to Mitski, has both beauty and sinisterness to it. As she said in an interview with “The Zane Lowe Show,” which was then transcribed by Yasmine Leung for The Focus:

“Laurel Hell is a term from the Southern Appalachians in the U.S., where laurel bushes basically grow in these dense thickets. When you get stuck in these thickets, you can’t get out. Or so the story goes.

“And so there are a lot of ‘Laurel Hells’ in America, in the South, where they’re named after the people who died within them because they were stuck. The thing is, laurel flowers are so pretty. They just burst into these explosions of just beauty. And, I just, I liked the notion of being stuck inside this explosion of flowers and perhaps even dying within one of them.” (2)

Though the opening track begins with the ominous, spooky “Valentine, Texas,” which builds into a song fit for a haunted cathedral, most of the tracks sound better off in a 1980s arcade. This duality really seems to work in Mitski’s favor—on first listen, listeners may not comprehend the complexity of her lyrics and simply bop their heads to the instrumentals, only to have the lyrics and their meanings hit them on the second or third time around.

“Laurel Hell” is the first album of Mitski’s I’ve listened to in its entirety, and I can honestly say I will definitely be giving her other albums another listen! I’ve heard songs in passing, whether it be from friends or on Spotify playlists, but this album had been so hyped up to me by friends and social media—TikTok especially—that I thought I would give it a listen. I had also listened to the album’s lead single, “Working for the Knife,” which had been released in early October of 2021, and enjoyed the feel and found the lyrics to be relatable, so that contributed to listening to the album as well.

Though my first exposure to the album beyond the lead single had been “Should’ve Been Me” due to the debate over the track sounding like it belongs on a round of “Mario Kart” to some people, and an ABBA or Hall & Oates song to others—the latter of which would make sense in the grand scheme of the album’s 1980s inspired sound—standout tracks had been “I Guess,” “Stay Soft,” “The Only Heartbreaker” and “There’s Nothing Left Here for You.” Whether it’s because of the relatable lyrics, Mitski’s incredible writing or simply the fun instrumentals and bouncy synth, I found myself enjoying these songs and their production, and I will definitely be adding them to my personal playlists.

I personally do not think there were any bad songs on this album, however I can understand why some long-time fans of Mitski may not enjoy it as much as her older albums. While her core songwriting is similar and may have evolved simply due to age and experience, the seemingly cheerful music may not be what fans look for when they want to listen to Mitski. However, personally, I do find the songs with sinister and heartbreaking undertones that can pass as “happy” songs to be far more painful to listen to than a traditional ballad, but I am aware that this is not everyone’s opinion.

With just over a half hour of music, Mitski’s “Laurel Hell” is an absolute whirlwind of emotions from beginning to end. However, it’s a whirlwind any fan of music—Mitski fan or otherwise—should experience at least once, especially if you happen to be a fan of ‘80s or ‘80s inspired music.

1 https://variety.com/2021/music/news/mitski-new-album-laurel-hell-single-1235107444/

2 https://www.thefocus.news/music/laurel-hell-meaning/