Analyzing Mitski’s Latest Album, “Laurel Hell”

Mitski released a series of promotional photos for her newest album Laurel Hell, which debuted on February 4th of this year.

Courtesy of The Gaurdian

Mitski released a series of promotional photos for her newest album Laurel Hell, which debuted on February 4th of this year.

On February 4th, popular indie musician Mitski released her 6th album titled Laurel Hell. This highly anticipated release made waves throughout her fan base, as well as the music industry at large. While Mitski has certainly been one of the biggest names in indie for quite some time, her career truly took off with the release of her last album, Be the Cowboy. This was only four years ago, yet her rise to stardom has provided her audience with a greater understanding of the experiences behind her lyricism. This newfound contextualization makes Laurel Hell her most cohesive collection of music yet, and allows for a greater understanding of her work.

A common theme throughout this album is one of double meaning. On the surface, most tracks describe events and emotions related to romantic relationships; however, when one looks deeper, it is clear Mitski is illustrating her experiences in the music industry. In order to fully understand Laurel Hell, one must first understand the effects Be the Cowboy had on Mitski and her career.
“I felt it was shaving away my soul little by little,” she told Rolling Stone. “The music industry is this supersaturated version of consumerism. You are the product being consumed, bought, and sold. Even the people on your team who are your friends, the very foundation of your dynamic is that they get a percentage of your income.”

Mitski fully intended September 9th of 2019 to be her final live performance before retiring from public life. She recalls dissociating through much of her Be the Cowboy tour, as the intense pressure and unending expectations were overwhelming, to say the least.

“This is what really made me quit,” she said. “I could see a future self, who would put out music for the sake of keeping the machine running. And that really scared me.”
With this understanding, more light is shed on tracks like “Working for the Knife” and “Stay Soft”. In “Working for the Knife”, she verbalizes the hopelessness many students and adults can relate to when engaging in passionless work. “I start the day high and it ends so low,” Mitski sings. “’Cause I’m working for the knife.”

Similarly, “Stay Soft” references the ways in which Mitski was forced to change herself in order to accomplish this work. “You stay soft, get beaten / Only natural to harden up,” she sings. This “hardening up” mirrors Mitski’s dissociation throughout her tour, and how she was forced to contort her personality to increase productivity.

“In order for me to survive in the music industry as it exists, I had to stuff a pillow over my heart and tell it to stop screaming, and be like, ‘Shut up, shut up, take it,’ ” she said. “After a few years of doing that every single day, my heart really did start to go numb and go silent.”
However, if Mitski is not able to stay in touch with her emotions, she recognizes the impossibility of continuing her career.

“I actually need my heart — my feelings — in order to write music. It was this paradox,” she said. Again, this is mirrored in “Stay Soft”, with lines like “Open up your heart / Like the gates of hell.”
As the album continues, Mitski illustrates a wide range of emotions, and addresses why the music industry grasps such a strong hold onto her. After what she thought would be her final performance, immediate regret set in.

“I performed, and I remembered how much I loved it. And I remember walking offstage, and I immediately started crying. Like, ‘What have I done?’” Mitski recalled. This sense of doom is displayed in songs like “Love Me More” and “I Guess”, as Mitski grapples with the understanding that she cannot seem to live without creating music; and yet, the music industry is the very entity that has almost destroyed her.
“I wish that this would go away / But when I’m done singing this song / I will have to find something else / To do to keep me here,” she sings in “Love Me More”. She continues, asking “How do other people live / I wonder how they keep it up / When today is finally done / There’s another day to come / Then another day to come”.

This sense of aimlessness, and fear of life without her most valuable outlet, is furthered in “I Guess”. She sings, “It’s been you and me since before I was me / Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live”. It’s implied she is speaking to a younger version of herself, fully immersed in the music industry, as she gazes into her reflection and sings, “It’s still as a pond I am staring into”.
The album concludes with “That’s Our Lamp”, as Mitski reflects on her career and her past. “I ran out the apartment / You say you love me / I believe you do,” she sings. I believe this reflects Mitski’s flee from public life, and awareness that millions of fans would be left behind. However, she continues, singing “’Cause you just don’t like me / Not like you used to”. Here Mitski makes a distinction between love and entitlement.

“I have developed this theory…” she said. “When the world put me in this position, I didn’t realize that I was making this deal where in exchange for giving me this platform and attention, I was supposed to give myself.”

Mitski’s battle with herself, and her relationship with the music industry, is perfectly reflected throughout her latest album– especially in the term “laurel hell”. Laurel hells are areas where laurel bushes grow extremely densely, and when one is stuck in them, it is difficult to escape.
“It was just too perfect,” Mitski said. “I’m stuck inside this maze … I can’t get out, but it’s beautiful.”

Hopelessness, defeat, love, and yearning: all themes intertwined expertly throughout Laurel Hell. With Mitski renewing her contract with Dead Oceans last year, it seems her career in music is far from over. I, an eager listener, look forward to what she has yet to say.