Mitski’s Reluctant Return to Music

Mitskis Reluctant Return to Music

Elaine Clarke, Writer

Mitski’s Laurel Hell was released early February 4th. After a four year hiatus between this album and her previous Be the Cowboy (released 2018), Mitski (Mitsuki Laycock) is back with new music and a tour starting in mid-February. 

Mitski has never made a bad song, a streak continued in the music of Laurel Hell. Her heartfelt writing paired with the freedom Mitski alway has with her creative melodys is a formula for guaranteed bangers. In Laurel Hell Mitski continues to write about her life, centering this new album on the topic of love and forgiveness. 

Laurel Hell is heavy on the influence from 1980’s synth-pop, which is not unlike Mitski’s experimental style. With every new album, the artist is able to bring different elements to her music and express herself in diverse ways, but in ways that ultimately feel like her. Despite the different stylization, the songs still carry the sound of a genuine Mitski album. 

Mitski started off strong by releasing singles like “Working for the Knife”, “Heat Lightning”, “The Only Heartbreaker”, and “Love Me More” before her album. They perfectly introduced Laurel Hell with their display of the album’s style and themes. “Working for the Knife’’ is a look at Mitski’s career, how she is unfulfilled in her goals made by a younger self. Now she feels trapped in her artistry, finding it harder and harder to be true and creative to herself. The song “Everyone” also touches on this topic, about the music industry’s standards and how it has affected the artist. There is an “everyone” telling Mitski what to do and what was best for her. In the song, the artist ignores them but she ultimately learns that offering herself to the world will leave her with nothing. Mitski thinks of herself as defying the industry only to realize she continues to play into its hand the whole time. The message in both these songs are only emphasized with the fact that Mitski was contractually forced to release this album. Laurel Hell is a journey through the artist’s thoughts and whether she should finally back out of the music industry. 

“Heat Lightning” is highly poetic and up for many different interpretations. It plays heavily on the theme of forgiveness and could be a song of Mitski forgiving herself. The importance of self love is key here in this album along with forgiveness because of the strong emotion’s Mitski explores in each song. Her mind is in turmoil, with half this album a message about very real love she has experienced and the other half her thoughts on how she has changed due to the industry and her future in it. 

“The Only Heartbreaker” and “Love Me More” are two sides of the same coin. Both take on the topic of unhealthy relationships. “The Only Heartbreaker” is heavy on the 80s synth, with upbeat pop-y music overtop darker lyrics. The song tells the story of a relationship in which Mitski finds herself taking on all the guilt and blaming herself for its toxic nature. “Love Me More”, along with more synth, is another toxic love. Mitski is dependent on her partner for worth, losing identity in order to finally feel loved. It could also be a message to her fans, and her obsession with being loved by her listeners, sacrificing her artist freedom for popularity.

The album boasts other songs on the topic of love, each with their own heartfelt meaning as Mitski puts raw emotion into everything she makes. “Stay Soft” is a message to those who feel hurt in past relationships and deserve forgiveness to themselves. Mitski herself has allowed sensitivity to become a weakness to her and her heart became numb. By allowing herself time away from the world with her hiatus, the vulnerability of her music is not compromised. This song is another question that the artist asks herself through this album. The stress of being a figure in mainstream media was a lot for her in the past, and Mitski continues to wonder whether her return to music is permanent.

“Valentine, Texas” is the first track of the album, a love letter about a bitter romance and letting go of her burdens and ghosts from the past. Even it’s title holds meaning and introduces the theme of love commonly associated with Valentines. Other songs also are about letting go or forgiving like “I Guess” and “That’s Our Lamp” each are about moving on in their own ways. “That’s Our Lamp” includes a loveless relationship, two people who love but no longer like each other, still together because of the love they felt in their past. The final two songs in her album, “There Nothing Left Here For You” and “Should’ve Been Me”, encompass relationships where she has given up, not her partner. 

All of the songs in her album are connected through their shared themes. But they also connect deeper as Mitski explores her place in music. Though she is back from her hiatus, that is not to say she is back for good. This album perfectly describes the question that the artist is asking herself, what love does she have left in making music? 

In the album there are mentions of a hand, manipulating and controlling Mitski. In “Everyone”, there is an “it” taking from Mitski, pushing and pulling and using her to its liking. It doesn’t want her at first, but later sets her in line.

Later in “Should’ve Been Me”, a hand is mentioned that lifts her out of her daily routine to drop her into a labyrinth where she is stuck. The labyrinth is her mind, the artist is in a crossroads emotionally and physically in her career. She has to make a choice, in terms of what part of herself must she give up to the world in order to live. The hand and the “it” represent an uncontrollable force that manipulate her to make the choice it wants. This can be something inside the artist, or it could represent something affecting her externally like the media, the music industry, or us.

Knives are another symbol used several times in Laurel Hell. In “Stay Soft”, knives are an angry glint in someone’s eye, a look into their soul. In “Working for the Knife” however, the knife takes on its own autonomy, representing the music industry that Mitski feels is sapping away her creative energy and spirit. Knives themselves can represent division, sacrifice, or emotional conflict, all things that the artist struggles with throughout the album. The knives could be what Mitski feels herself from herself or from others. 

There is continued symbolism in memory and growth. Many of her songs mention a girl she used to be. This represents a look at her career and how she has changed emotionally and psychologically. She is not the same person she was when she recorded her first album Lush. This sense of growth and clinging to memories all hints at the artist’s desire to change. Her natural development over the years as a person is not able to flourish if she keeps holding onto the person she once was. Mitski requires a rebirth in order to properly grow.

The album also plays with uncertainty, with doors and the dark being two major topics. In “Valentine, Texas” the artist talks about us stepping carefully into the dark, where she will remember her way around. In several songs doors are mentioned which all symbolize Mitski’s transition into the next stage in her life. Where that door will take her and what that stage will be is uncertain, but the artist will find her way again. Mitski has taken big risks before in her life by entering into the music industry in the first place. The uncertainty of her next big risk, whether to stay or go, is evident in Laurel Hell.

“I Guess” is a song to her fans. In it, she talks about growing and learning how to be someone else after being with someone for a long time. It had been her and her partner since before it was her. The song mentions a pond which could represent a reflection of Mitski and her career. The song ends with thanks as Mitski says goodbye to the person it is directed at. “I Guess” foreshadows one path of the crossroads that the artist finds herself at. Her reflection in the pond is everything she’s done so far and Mitki doesn’t know who she is without her music career. By saying goodbye in the song, she has made the choice to find herself without music. Whether this will translate into any real career choice is yet to be seen.

Mitski is back in the spotlight and despite the change in style, the music is truly, deeply hers. The exploration of blameless relationships, the kindness in forgiveness, and the love in her life gives each song deep meaning that is a staple for her music. Despite the uncertainty in her return to music, Mitski proves yet again that she is a master of creativity.