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One Good Thing: Music to dance to as a hurricane bears down

Laurel Hell sees the darkly brooding singer-songwriter Mitski confronting her extremely unlikely pop stardom.

A performer sitting behind a table, shot from below.
Mitski performs in 2019.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I had two thoughts the first time I heard Mitski’s sixth album, Laurel Hell, when it was released in early February: “I love how emotionally devastating this is!” and “This sounds like good music to work out to!”

Laurel Hell continues Mitski’s evolution of a sound that first began to coalesce on her fifth album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy. Her music increasingly sounds like dancing wildly by yourself on the seashore as a hurricane bears down upon everything. That’s exactly the kind of music I like to play at the gym, but your mileage will surely vary. (I only want my life to be accompanied by sad women.)

For a great example of the way Mitski blends dread and synth music that exists in a strange Venn diagram intersection of ’80s pop and the score for a David Lynch movie, just check out Laurel Hell’s leadoff single “Working for the Knife.”

The subjects of Mitski’s songs are almost invariably trapped by their circumstances, something that dovetails with the artist’s frequently professed misgivings about the level of fame she has attained. The kind of eclectic, ambitious art pop Mitski traffics in has rarely won over a massive audience, but Mitski’s cult fandom continues to grow with every new release. Laurel Hell actually sold enough physical copies to debut atop the Billboard album sales top 10.

The idea of being trapped is everywhere in Mitski’s music once you go looking for it. One of her best-known songs, for instance, 2016’s “Your Best American Girl,” is about growing up as a non-white woman (Mitski is Japanese American) in a country whose visions of femininity are skewed hopelessly toward whiteness. Even a seemingly more wistful track like 2018’s “Me and My Husband” reveals itself with more listens as being either about a woman trapped in a floundering marriage she keeps telling herself is just great or about a woman who has become trapped by the idea of how she needs to be married (preferably to a man) to have a full life.

The ambiguity around “Husband” underlines another reason to love Mitski’s music: None of her songs holds one simple meaning. They all reveal new nuances with additional listens. So take everything I say any given song on Laurel Hell is about with a grain of salt. I’m sure by the time her next album comes out, I’ll have completely changed my mind.

But at first blush, the songs on Laurel Hell seem to explore traps that are enormous and existential. My favorite song on the album, “Everyone,” starts off simply enough, with Mitski singing about trying to carve her own path atop an understated synth and drum machine loop. But as the song continues, she discovers that the different path she’s found to tread is just another path that can be co-opted by the world she was trying to escape. The system is all-pervasive, and any ability to exit its confines is illusory.

As the song’s final couplet, she sings, “Sometimes I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again,” and the track explodes with shimmering piano. It sounds like an epiphany, but look at the lyrical epiphany it accompanies. (Also, the title “Everyone” mirrors the title of 2018’s “Nobody,” which is one of her biggest hits. The mirroring seems pointed to me.)

Traps within romantic and sexual relationships also abound on Laurel Hell. For example, “The Only Heartbreaker” is told from the point of view of someone who’s constantly blamed for the things that go wrong in a relationship. Yet it holds empathy for the idea that maybe that person has taken the mantle of “the one who takes the blame” onto themselves. Or “Stay Soft” traces a sexual relationship between two people who treat each other poorly but keep coming back to each other. They find something in each other they can’t find anywhere else, even if that something is toxic or broken.

“Stay Soft” speaks to the other sneaky brilliant aspect of Laurel Hell: It’s absurdly danceable, but in a “dancing alone in your bedroom” way, not a “going to the club” way. (Then again, if anybody wants to play a club set built around Mitski, let me know. I’ll be there.)

If you’ve ever watched Mitski perform, she will occasionally break to dance, but her dancing takes the form of a kind of full-body release, like she’s expelling every emotion she can think of the only way she knows how. (You can see a bit of this at the end of the “Working for the Knife” video above.) The songs on Laurel Hell often capture that sense of release, and when I say they’re danceable, I mean they invite you to expel every emotion you can think of the only way you know how. When you’re trapped, sometimes the only way out is through the release that comes from seeming to detach your spirit from your body. At its best, Mitski’s music and her dancing echo this idea.

Laurel Hell isn’t quite as different from Be the Cowboy as Mitski’s prior albums were from each other. She’s a deeply eclectic artist who pulls from a variety of influences, from classical music to Björk, so she’s never going to repeat herself, but it’s easier to see the through line between her last two albums than it was between, say, 2013’s Retired from Sad, New Career in Business, and 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek.

But the choice to keep delving into this particular territory suggests to me Mitski has found something worth exploring, and the songs on Laurel Hell are more than enough proof that she’s probably right about that. Somewhere out there, existential doom awaits us all. We can’t escape it, either as individuals or as a species. But until then, we can find cathartic release from working through the sadness, fear, and pain.

Laurel Hell is available to stream on all major music platforms. There’s also a deluxe edition available on vinyl. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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