When Mitski Miyawaki vanished off social media and declared a New York City gig her last back in 2019, it came as a surprise to say the least. ‘Be The Cowboy’ had achieved the unlikely, breaking Mitski into the big leagues on her fifth full-length release. It also spurred an unexpected leap into social fame, dominating across TikTok in late 2021, inciting a global resurgence of her lengthy catalogue. The haunting juxtaposition of ‘Nobody’’s showtune melody and emotionally crippling lyrics broke generational boundaries, lasting long beyond the buzz around the 2018 release.
But Mitski was done. Whether due to, or despite mainstream success, her relationship with the often-turbulent music industry had begun to crack. Reportedly struggling to find enjoyment or catharsis in her work, she removed herself from the limelight and called it a day. ‘Laurel Hell,’ an album that simultaneously never should have been but also one that feels entirely inevitable, soundtracks her self-imposed fall and her climb back up. Even as she sings of heartbreak, it’s impossible to shake the notion that her candid lyrics extend beyond interpersonal relationships. Her struggle, frustration, and despondency instead feel aimed at herself and the craft she has honed brilliantly over the past decade.
When she sings “It’s been you and me since before I was me” on the eerily choral ‘I Guess’, it presents as an ode to music above all else. “I guess this is the end,” she offers, as if referring to her separation from her art, pondering “I’ll have to learn to be somebody else.” The battle over purpose runs throughout ‘Laurel Hell’. Lead track ‘Working For The Knife’ opens with a brutal examination of the loss of creativity. The heartbreak is altogether more crushing, even when placed against the upbeat backdrops of ‘Should’ve Been Me’ and ‘That’s Our Lamp’, both excellent companions to the jarring emotions of ‘Nobody’.
That ‘Laurel Hell’ exists only because it almost didn’t gives it its power. It provides the space for her mastery of songwriting, and Patrick Hyland’s understated yet orchestral production places Mitski in a realm all her own. She finds her voice in loss, an involuntary yet necessary response to throwing in the towel. But there’s an ever-present tentative undercurrent, one that highlights the fragility of her return. The light at the end of the tunnel is flickering at best. You can’t help but feel that it’s all one broken brick away from tumbling down, which is exactly why it plays out with such delicate urgency.
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