“Sometimes I think I am free,” Mitski sings nearly halfway through her new album, “Until I find I am back in line again.” The moment comes during “Everyone,” one of the more understated, easy-to-gloss-over numbers on Laurel Hell, a record that both buries and embeds its meaning in synthesizer sheen. If the singer-songwriter’s previous records, like 2014’s unfettered Bury Me At Makeout Creek or 2016’s breakthrough Puberty 2, introduced Mitski Miyawaki as an open-hearted chronicler of millennial malaise, her latest work is a much more emotionally tentative offering.
Working with longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland, Mitski lets her arrangements and Eighties-pastiche pop textures (swirling circus melodies, icy Pat Benatar synths) do much of the heavy narrative lifting this time around: See “There’s Nothing Left For You,” which explodes into a show tune symphony of drums, synths, and guitar when the song’s narrator pays tribute to a former lover’s need to move on (“It was your right/It was your life”). By the end of the song, the fading drum pattern resembling a human heartbeat accentuates the song’s unresolved disappointment.
On Laurel Hell, Mitski expresses her deep discomfort with her status as indie-rock paragon by embracing the types of sounds that pop A-listers like Taylor Swift and Lorde have eschewed in recent years in favor of the sorts of stripped-down, rock-based palettes that Mitski spent the past decade perfecting. Laurel Hell can feel, at first, like an impenetrable record, full of guarded gloss and pop production that feels more like cold caution than anthemic summoning.
That’s exactly Mitski’s point: Laurel Hell, positioned as her comeback after a four-year absence, often feels more like a struggling contemplation of retreat than an easy return. On a series of songs that deliberately obscure the identity of the second-person “you” Mitski is referring to at any given moment (An ex? Her past self? Her audience?), Mitski is questioning everything around her, nothing more so than her own sense of self. “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change,’ she sings on “Heat Lightning,” which simmers like an approaching storm, “Can I give it up to you? Would that be okay?”
More often than not, the songs about personal turmoil double as self-conscious career commentary: “Cause you just don’t like me, not like you used to.” That’s a line from the finale “That’s Our Lamp,” an exquisite display of terse, two-verse storytelling: Mitski concludes the record with a High Fidelity-like sequence: staring up at the window of the home she shares with her soon-to-be-ex, fixating on the lamp in the window that they still share. Then, the song erupts into a cacophony of programmed horns, strings and percussion, as if Mitski is dancing off the weight of expectations surrounding her new sonic path. It’s not quite a happy ending, even if it almost sounds like one.