Crying and dancing and being comfortable in your own skin: The Album! (Oh ok then – Disco Rock!)
Mitski is never one to hang around. With 11 tracks and 32 minutes of music, “Laurel Hell” is another short and sharp album that sees her move towards 80’s synth work and gasoline smeared synth ballads. In the collage of Mitski’s work, this is some of the most vibrant and anthemic. It also wears its unusual twists proudly on its sleeve.
“Valentine, Texas” introduces you to Mitski’s new world like a funfair ride. Those gasoline synths work their magic like a Soft Cell ballad but Mitski’s penchant for dramatic helter-skelter chord progressions ensure nothing is quite settled. Indeed, the whole album has a recurring theme of starting riffs or song sections out of step or a bar early. It is as if the music doesn’t want you to feel comfortable. It could be the transitions from airy midtempo electronica to rock with “Working for the Knife” or the neon Western “Heat Lightning” that balances sensuality and dark mental wondering beautifully – it’s rare that the songs offer a steady emotional blanket.
One of my favourite elements of the album is how many songs transition from cocoon to butterfly. “There’s Nothing Left Here for You” starts out like it could veer into ABBA blues territory and then it explodes into a frenzied rush of guitars and stadium drums for its middle. “I Guess” is a blurry ambient hue of voice and organ that lets Mitski’s voice shift effortlessly between solemn sadness and impassioned resolution. The music barely changes but the whole mood does.
Interspersed between all these artsy pieces are five absolute pop bangers. “That’s Our Lamp” is as close to a happy carnival as Mitski will ever get although I wanted the track to be longer for the fanfare of brass and cheers to pay off. “Should’ve Been Me” sounds like a lost Madness track at times with lots of playful keyboards. “Stay Soft”, “Love Me More” and “The Only Heartbreaker” showcase how vocals slightly strained can milk all the emotion out of a powerhouse chorus. They bring in big danceable beats but refuse to drop the quirky melodrama that makes Mitski’s music stand out. It’s a real meeting of musical identity and a new poppier sheen. Other artists that want to cross over into a more mainstream sound – this is how you do it and keep your indie fans happy.
Altogether, “Laurel Hell” is a great collection of songs but it does feel like at times like two separate releases smashed together. Thankfully the tracklisting makes the album flow back and forth like a push/pull of energy. Whether its about love, music, being an artist and reflecting over life choices, there’s more than a hint of chasing a tail here and that spirals into the way the album flows too. Whilst “Be the Cowboy” was a phenomenal breakthrough album, “Laurel Hell” is a wonderful follow up that is everything and nothing like it at all.
Recommended track: Stay Soft
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