Over the last couple of decades, the term Indie Music has expanded to include a large variety of subgenres. When the idea of Indie music largely started to gain traction about 20 years ago, it mainly referred to Garage Rock and Punk Rock distributed by small independent music labels. Now, Indie music has become a broad genre with many subgenres attached. We still do have traditional Indie Rock, but now we also get various types of Pop considered to be Indie as well. Indie Pop can range from being entirely electronic and Synth driven to being lo-fi and simple Folk music. One artist that has risen to the top of the crop who tends to lean towards the more lo-fi old school folk, baroque, and blues side of Indie music is Mitski. Over the last few years, she has grown from an underground artist who mainly only got exposure from public college radio stations to one of the most popular acts making Indie music. 2016 is when she first hit her stride, with her record Puberty 2 garnering a lot of recognition and putting her on the radar. Her second album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, received critical acclaim. This album showed off how great of a songwriter she is, as she drew in so many fans with her personal and relatable lyricism. Her new album, Laurel Hell, has been long-awaited, as so many people have wanted to see how she will follow up such a great record. With that being said, here is my review of Mitski’s Laurel Hell. Please let me know in the comments if you like this album, and also let me know in the comments which songs you like the most from Laurel Hell.
Mitski’s new record starts off on an earlier yet beautiful note with the song ‘Valentine, Texas.’ I did not know how a song can feel cold and warm at the same time before this one. The melody and tone of the track, driven by keyboard notes layered with intense synths, feel inviting and welcoming yet repellent and closed off at the same time. This song almost has a theatrical feel, and it is a hell of a way to start an album. On ‘Valentine, Texas,’ Mitski is expressing doubt in who she is and who she wants to be on this track. As she takes her lover on a date in a small town in Texas placed in the middle of nowhere, she is exposing emotions that normally does not express. She believes that returning to this place from her memories will help her open up and find what she is looking for in herself. The second song, ‘Working For the Knife,’ also starts with fierce and foreboding synths. Pretty quickly, though, the melody shifts to being made by guitars; these guitar riffs are so distorted that they do still feel a bit synthetic. The drum pattern on this song is very clunky and robotic. Overall, the instrumentation has a bit of a neo-noir or cyberpunk feeling. In ‘Working For the Knife,’ she is singing about how the oppressive forces that life can create bring her down. She tried to stay upbeat, but the craziness of the world always takes a major toll on her positivity by the end of the day. Mitski brings the New Wave and the Funk with the next song, which is called ‘Stay Soft.’ Compared to the first couple of songs, this one has a brighter and more optimistic sound. The bass line is funky and fun and makes me want to move and groove. I like the piano riff a lot as well; it reminds me a lot of Dance Pop music from the 1980s. The lyricism of ‘Stay Soft’ creates a juxtaposition with the instrumental. Even though the song has an upbeat tone, the lyrics are actually about an unhealthy relationship.
Everyone, all of them; Everyone said, “Don’t go that way.” So, of course, to that I said, “I think I’ll go that way.” And I left the door open to the dark. I said, “Come in, come in, whatever you are.” But it didn’t want me yet… – ‘Everyone’
‘Everyone’ has a somewhat similar sound to the first two tracks on this album. It is very synth-heavy, and it has an atmospheric tone that is all-encompassing and almost foreboding. It is not as dark as the first two songs though; even though it still has a heavy feeling, it feels a bit more optimistic that those first few tracks. ‘Everyone’ is about Mitski’s music career and rise to stardom. She was told by all of the people around her not to pursue music as a career and she didn’t listen. Even though it hasn’t turned out exactly how she expected, she appreciates the fact she took the chances she did and ended up having a very successful music career. The next track, ‘Heat Lightning,’ has a sound that somehow hits all of the main types of Indie Pop music in one song. It starts with a Folk-ish guitar riff which is eventually taken over by a sweet and theatrical piano riff. The end of the song shifts away from this piano riff, though, and brings us back to a New Wave Synth-Pop feeling. The tone of this song shifts from dark and somber to bright and optimistic as it progresses. It is cool how Mitski changes the mood so suddenly yet fluidly in a song that is only about three minutes. ‘Heat Lightning’ is about insomnia and the need to sleep. Some people(like myself, for instance) have a very tough time falling asleep, and when they do finally get to sleep it feels like bliss(even if it’s only for a little bit). This song addresses that sentiment in a very deep way. Mitski goes with an 80s Synth-Pop sound with the song ‘The Only Heartbreaker.’ This song has an instrumental which is nothing like anything I would expect from Mitski. I know there is an earlier song on the record with a retro Dance-Pop sound, but that one at least still had a traditional Indie Pop feeling to it. This track does not feel Indie at all to me. It reminds me a lot of some stuff by The Weeknd or Dua Lipa. I appreciate the fact that Mitski made a song like this as it shows off a side of her I have not seen before. On this track, Mitski is talking about always taking the blame in a bad relationship. Even though it’s supposed to be a two-way street, she felt like she was the only one screwing up with this particular significant other. The 80s Pop theme does continue onto the track ‘Love Me More,’ This track has more of a guitar-driven Pop Rock sound to it, though. It reminds me of a lot of music by bands like The Bangles or The Go-Gos. I think Mitski’s voice fits this sound well and I would love to hear her pursue it more. Once again, this song does not have a traditional Indie sound. Mitski is further expanding the reaches of Indie music with this record in a cool way. In ‘Love Me More,’ Mitski is talking about self-love. She knows she has to try to love and appreciate herself, but she has a very hard time doing so and wonders how other people do it.
‘There’s Nothing Left For You’ has one of the most interesting and experimental sounds out of anything on this record. The song starts with a calm and soft acoustic Chamber Pop sound driven by a synthesized keyboard. It is very low-key and makes the listener focus on Mitski’s vocals and lyrics. About halfway through the song and seemingly out of nowhere, a lot of instrumentation kicks it loudly; guitars and drums all of a sudden take over the instrumental. The next quarter of the song has a theatrical Rock sound to it, with Mitski’s vocals becoming very strong and loud to match the instrumentations. Very abruptly, the song transitions back to its initial Chamber Pop sound at about the ¾ mark, leaving the listener in a state of shock as they come down from the high from the previous quarter of the song. It is a very cool and unique concept for a song that I would not have expected from Mitski. On ‘There’s Nothing Left For You,’ Mitski songs about how all her emotions and feelings have been depleted and she has no more will to put in the effort with her significant other. She has tried her best and decided it isn’t meant to be. The next song, ‘Should’ve Been Me,’ brings back the retro Pop sound prevalent earlier in the record. This is another song influenced heavily by 80s New Wave and Alternative Pop. Two things make this song stick out, though: the undeniably funky baseline and tone and the theatrical chamber Pop tone provided by the keyboard. These two things give an extra element to this track that make it more interesting and fun. On ‘Should’ve Been Me,’ Mitski sings about how lonely she felt in her last relationship. She and her partner both became emotionally unavailable and isolated themselves from each other. Even though the song ‘I Guess’ is pretty low-key and simple, it hits the listener in a way that is so deep and emotional. The lack of beat and simple nature of the melody make this song feel so heavy. This song has a very ethereal and atmospheric sound; it almost sounds otherworldly or robotic. The weird sound effects sprinkled throughout the song combined with this hypnotizing and weird instrumental make me think of artists like Björk or Imogen Heap. On ‘I Guess,’ Mitski is reflecting on her most recent relationship and realizing it was not all bad. She was able to learn a lot about herself because of it and she considers that a positive. Mitski ends this record with ‘That’s Our Lamp,’ another song that is inspired by various forms of 80s and 90s Pop. This is another one with a funky bass line that makes anyone who hears it bop their head or move their feet. The melody for this song partly reminds me of 80s New Wave, and it partly reminds me of late 90s Alternative Pop music. It is probably one of the most eclectic-sounding songs on this record, and that is saying a lot. On ‘That’s Our Lamp,’ Mitski seems to finally have closure about her last relationship. She is reminiscing on the good times and lamenting on the bad times. She knows that things needed to end and they ultimately worked out for the best. ‘That’s Our Lamp’ puts a cap on the emotional ride that is Mitski’s Laurel Hell.
As the Indie music landscape has expanded over the last 10 years or so, Mitski has become one of its premier stars. Her rise to the top has come because of her deep, emotional lyricism and her ability to glide in-between types of Pop music. Her diverse sound and ability to write lyrics that connect with listeners make her stand out. These skills she is known for shine through on this new record. Laurel Hell touches on all kinds of Pop music; from Folk to New Wave to Theatrical Chamber Pop, Mitski hits so many kinds of music on this record while keeping it sonically cohesive. Mitski displays her awesome lyric writing ability on this record as well, inviting the listener into her world in a very intimate way. On Laurel Hell, Mitski showed why she is a staple in the current Indie music scene. She sets a high bad for anyone else who wants to make Indie Pop in 2022.