Mitski's 'Laurel Hell' confronts the wild complexity of feeling
All over the world, every day, people are losing it. It happened to me just last Tuesday, driving onto I-40 on my way back from Trader Joe's. Phoebe Snow's 1974 seduction "Poetry Man" turned up on my playlist and suddenly I was sobbing so aggressively I nearly had to pull over on the freeway on-ramp. That song's a masterpiece of charm becoming desperation, but Snow's entreaties to her married lover weren't what got me. There was no sensible reason, in fact, that on an ordinary day hauling chicken jerky home to my poodle, I suddenly became bereft. My current crises are quotidian and manageable. I process bigger traumas with my shrink. Yet here I was, choking up, endangering the lives of others as my eyes blurred and the snot flowed. Finally the song ended and some sad and dramatic indie ballad came on, but it didn't touch me. Suddenly I couldn't feel anything but fine, maybe a bit chagrined at the intensity of my outburst and the speed of its vanishing – just another emotionally dysregulated human in 2022.
I needed to crank up some Mitski. In the decade since the then-university undergrad released her demo-level debut Lush, her music has become the benchmark within a rock style the critic Lindsay Zoladz has dubbed "feelings-forward." That term might seem specious at first – what music doesn't foreground feelings? — but it captures the earnestness and need to be heard that young women have brought to rock, as well as their dedication to intense self-inquiry. After Mitski came Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, Arlo Parks, Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, and Olivia Rodrigo, among many others, all indebted to her groundbreaking decision to accept rock's gift of grandiosity while just as determinedly interrogating its biases and cliches.
As the rock genre itself changed (or at least its indie side, now the main source of any energy it retains), Mitski expanded her own sonic approach, absorbing what was useful from emo and punk, Asian pop, show tunes, country music, and her current main inspiration, New Wave-era synth-driven rock. Her songs and the characters speaking through them grew more complex as she mastered the Springsteenesque art of making one person's humble story into an anthem. She became adept at not only expressing emotion but capturing the subtleties of its strange currencies, how a feeling can isolate as much as it bonds, how desire or doubt or self-loathing can shock and embarrass and show a mind of its own. Her 2018 pop-rock breakthrough Be the Cowboy lucidly organized these preoccupations into character studies. Her sixth album Laurel Hell ends a pronounced break that Mitski says was filled with big questions about her life and the value of making music, and it shows Mitski settling into her mastery as a champion and interpreter of outsized emotions.
The album comes just as the moment calls for it. People were built to generate big heart energy, but these days it's getting ridiculous. Wild feelings are spinning off from whatever motivates them, burning their own paths through daily life. To list all the ways this energy is manifesting is to descend rapidly into the moribund territory of sensationalistic news reports. Rage on airplanes! Disrupted school board meetings! Exhausted parents, quitting workers, drug and alcohol use spiraling, sex drives plummeting. People are living too much on social media, projecting onto others. "We end up arguing about things we don't feel that strongly about because we can't remember that the other side of the argument is subject to many of the same forces," culture critic Charlie Warzel wrote recently about the online drama generated by the game Wordle. "There's no real sense of proportion to any of it, and that absence makes us feel both more frustrated at the other person, and also, like we're maybe losing it." Unable to fathom genuine threats like climate crisis, we make light of those as we obsess over people bragging about their Wordle scores.
Artists of all kinds are mirroring this chaos: Melodrama abounds in 2022, mutating into new forms. Storytelling serves as a way of making meaning from the mess. Some of this stuff is great – films that are bare-knuckle rides into damaged psyches like The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter; the hybrid nonfiction of writers like Larissa Pham and Hanif Abdurraqib, which infuse cultural inquiry with subjectivity the way a hydrating drip brings desiccated body back to life. Some, like the teen sex drama Euphoria, seem to enact the same confounding disequilibrium to which its creators are responding. As the madness of our daily lives becomes dull in its relentlessness, artists are making work that organizes its effects through innovations in tone, perspective and narrative structure. These works confront inner dysregulation and try to give it its own language.
This is how Laurel Hell works its magic. It does so quietly at first. The opening track, "Valentine, Texas," builds like mist, with a vibrating organ part and Mitski's elongated, eerily distorted vocal: "Let's step carefully into the dark," she sings. Her languid phrasing, unaffected by melisma, is a key element of Mitski's expressive acumen. It lends the effect of sitting with one's feelings instead of trying to perform or perfect them. "Valentine, Texas" builds and builds on its fugue-like opening phrases as Mitski convinces herself, by way of an invitation, to take a sexual risk: "I'll show you who my sweetheart's never met," she sings to an unnamed new flame, tempting them into an open-air rendezvous. This infidelity will be a new burden, she knows, but she hopes its transgressiveness unfetters her. In the song's soaring last bars, she imagines herself laying back and becoming free: "Let me watch those mountains from underneath, and maybe they'll float off of me."
The burden of feeling and the struggle to either integrate or discard it is the theme of Laurel Hell – not a new one for Mitski, but here she explores it relentlessly. What's hurting, enthralling, enticing her is not only erotic love, but the promise and weight of creativity, the threat that expressive vulnerability always poses to the comforting tedium of the unengaged heart. One narrative running through these songs involves a protagonist coming to terms with a romantic breakup, another traces an artist's journey through a dry period. They may or may not be autobiographical, but that's irrelevant. What makes Laurel Hell powerful is the way it tracks the sometimes infinitesimal, sometimes deeply disruptive internal turns a person takes while trying to absorb the confusion of a life change.
In the instantly engaging singalongs "Working for the Knife" and "Love Me More" her longing and need spill over. "I need you to fill me up" and "drown me out!" she exclaims on the latter, invoking the ego-annihilating enthrallment of an obsessive romance — or of performance, because that "you" might also be an adoring crowd, the very audience that the blocked artist in "Knife" can no longer imagine engaging. Hunger for others, for another, pushes these songs' protagonist in one direction while a kind of violent disaffection pulls her in another. Elsewhere, Laurel Hell immerses the listener in a sense of calm that simmers into something much more complex. The slow kinesis of "Heat Lighting" captures how anxiety, generating insomnia, inches over the mind and body at the same time. In "There's Nothing Left For You" Mitski plays the sad goth, performing loneliness as a way of trying to control it, unraveling the bewitchment of self-loathing. What's most artful about these songs and the way Mitski builds them within careful arrangements is the way they capture wild emotion's contradictions: how the joy of release bursts through agony, or how negativity can become a soft, inviting psychic bed.
Laurel Hell is the mature work of a musician who's been developing this practice for years and has found the ideal framework for maximizing its potential. Be The Cowboy felt less tethered to a particular sound, but this album fully embraces 1980s-inspired synth rock. If the saxophone sound that wafts through "Working For the Knife" wasn't directly inspired by post-punk louches the Psychedelic Furs and the opening chords of "Love Me More" aren't a conscious nod to The Police, then someone's been playing in the fields of Jungian collective unconscious, because the similarities are undeniable. "Stay Soft" doesn't overtly quote Depeche Mode, but it's so easy to imagine a leathered-up Dave Gahan intoning the hook: "Open up your heart / Like the gates of Hell!" The album's hot pink sheen raises the spirit of another decade awash in emotional dysregulation: in cocaine and Reaganism, plasticity and thoughtlessness.
New Wave music and the mainstream rock it influenced was, like the songs on Laurel Hell, similarly awash in paradox. It was florid and chilly, held together by chromium lines unfurling from Roland and Yamaha synths but humanized by the outsized croons of vocalists like Gahan. The '80s was also prime time for movie musicals, and Laurel Hell could itself be read as the soundtrack to a one-woman extravaganza. Big numbers like "The Only Heartbreaker" – her first co-write, with veteran balladeer and Adele favorite Dan Wilson – alternate with muted soliloquies that seem designed to be sung center stage under a glowing spotlight. The fervency Mitski communicates, whether her voice soars or murmurs, is always carefully stylized, as are the gracefully odd dance moves she performs in her videos and the glamorous poses she strikes in photographs. This is feeling, she often seems to be saying. I can track it, understand it. In "Should've Been Me," she compares the unpredictable shifts of her psyche to a labyrinth. These songs go there, exposing all the dead ends, the sharp turns, the flights toward an exit. "Must be lonely loving someone trying to find their way out of a maze," she sings to an imagined lover, or her listeners.
Music can be the force that blows through those walls within, reordering confused emotions, at least temporarily, through the enrapturement wrought by noise and harmony and rhythm. In Larissa Pham's Pop Song she writes of her teen years as a club rat in Pacific Northwest punk clubs, where she'd go to be "totally surrounded in music, a small part of something large." Pham's ardent words will resonate with anyone who's sought out such a sound bath: "Yes, I understood that kind of disappearance: being slammed speechless by a wall of sound, in a packed room full of roiling bodies, everything surging into an incoherence so ecstatic the bounds of myself seemed to fade away. If I could find it in music, it made sense that it lived elsewhere in the world, hovering at the outer edges of extremity."
With its soaring choruses and currents of synths, Laurel Hell offers many opportunities to immerse. But Mitski isn't just showing how music can envelop the heart and reorder it. As she's grown as a writer and musician, she's become more adept at examining that process of getting swept up in things, whether they be transitory, like the rush of a crush, or life-altering. Playing out wild feelings, she enacts the processes of their formation. That's why the first line on Laurel Hell invites a careful step into the dark, even if later, on another song, she announces that she's opened her arms wide to it. Like an actress or an analysand, within her music Mitski breaks down each step of a building emotion. She goes all the way in, even when the dysfunction's rampant, and her clarity is remarkable. An artist with that gift suits a time like ours, stretching out on a tightrope between impossible futures and catastrophe. To stand inside desire or regret or hope and say what it really does – to the body, to the heart, to others – is an act of courage. That's what Mitski dares.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.