Does Mitski really want to be here? The 31-year-old indie star has been sending mixed signals for a while now. In 2019, she announced a hiatus that many fans presumed was a retirement. She insisted at the time that she wasn’t quitting, but in recent interviews she confirmed that actually she did plan at the time to quit her music career. But she ended up not quitting. Only she has hinted that she might quit at some point in the not-so-distant future.
What should be made of all this? Having interviewed Mitski myself, I know that her interactions with the press can be cordial but distant. On stage, she is one of the most magnetic and theatrical performers in indie rock, radiating star appeal even when she was playing dingy rock clubs. In interviews, however, she’s enigmatic, prone to giving statements that seem revealing in the moment and then vague once you see them in print. And that seems entirely deliberate, and also understandable given the close readings her songs and press clippings have invited in the past. But the success and indie fame she received in the wake of 2018’s Be The Cowboy has exacerbated this reticence. In at least two of her recent magazine profiles, she declined to give the names of her cats, for fear that this information could be used to track down her personal information. (Is there a Google Cat app that I am not aware of?)
All of this has made headlines like “Mitski Had To Quit Music To Love It” not entirely convincing. She hasn’t quit music, but she also hasn’t demonstrated that she loves it. In the Rolling Stone interview, Mitski admitted that she wrote “Working For The Knife” — the first single from her new album, Laurel Hell, due Friday — at the end of 2019, around the time she was reminded of a contractual obligation with her record label to put out another album. “I just didn’t know whether I would ask the label to take it and keep me out of it,” she said, “or I would actually go out and present it.” The song itself doesn’t resolve this ambivalence. Over a mid-tempo shuffle accented with goth-y synths, Mitski croons about a spiritual malaise that one could easily apply to her own career narrative: “I used to think I’d be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same.”
Apparently, Mitski has opted to go the “actually go out and present it” route. The release of Laurel Hill will be accompanied by a three-month international tour of large theaters that launches in about two weeks, and is already almost entirely sold out. After that she will join Harry Styles for a short run of stadium concerts in Europe. As for the album itself, it’s her most overt pop move yet, with another single, “The Only Heartbreaker,” co-written by Dan Wilson, a collaborator of Adele and Taylor Swift and one of the top hired guns in the business.
And yet, the question persists: Does Mitski really want to be here? Unlike the bravado she displayed on the preternaturally confident Be The Cowboy, she seems markedly less assured on the follow-up. It feels muddled, as if the author couldn’t decide on an overall vision. Mitski has said that Laurel Hell went through many iterations — including country and punk versions — before she decided that “I need to dance,” according to Rolling Stone. But the throwback 1980s sheen applied to the songs is ultimately noncommittal. The central conflict here seems to be this: Is this a full-blown bid for pop superstardom? Or is it a subversive spin on the idea of a pop record akin to Mitski’s other work? I can’t tell as a listener, and I’m not sure Mitski knows, either. She’s trying to have it both ways — simultaneously stepping up and retreating — and succeeding at neither.
On Be The Cowboy, Mitski mined the space between pop and indie music, landing in her own uniquely perverse space. Like on the album-closing ballad “Two Slow Dancers,” a climactic torch song in which she likens the familiarity of a long-term relationship to the smell of a school gymnasium. But there is no such alchemy on Laurel Hell, which oscillates between pop and perversity without ever integrating those poles.
On the perverse side are several slow, noirish ballads that telegraph an indefatigable weariness with slasher-movie synths and dreary piano chords. “Sometimes I think I am free / Until I find I’m back in line again,” she sings in “Everyone,” capturing the captive resignation that permeates much of the album. And then there’s “Stay Soft,” in which media commodification is reimagined as an S&M dynamic between audience and star and set to a queasy bump-n’-grind rhythm. Not all of these songs work — “Stay Soft” is kind of clumsy — but at least they hint at Mitski’s ability to write songs that can beguile and befuddle in equal doses, pinpointing the shared attributes of fear and desire. It’s on the more upbeat songs that the weaknesses of Laurel Hell are most acute.
Simply put, the would-be bangers here don’t bang nearly hard enough. Along with the vintage 120 Minutes-style alt-pop of “The Only Heartbreaker,” the ’80s signifiers come hot and heavy on songs like “Love Me More” and “Should’ve Been Me,” which quotes musically from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” But this is nothing we haven’t all heard many, many times from indie and pop artists for about a decade now; by now, the 1980s have been strip-mined for every last gated drum track and retro keyboard squiggle. It’s still possible to do this sort of thing well, however, and Laurel Hell suffers from arriving so close after The Weeknd’s Dawn FM, one of the most brilliant evocations of ’80s pop nostalgia of recent years. On Dawn FM, every song is loaded with hooks and ace production choices, a testament to the battery of songwriting and production talent at Abel Tesfaye’s disposal. Laurel Hell sounds feeble by comparison.
Ever since her second album, 2013’s self-released Retired From Sad, New Career In Business, Mitski has collaborated with the producer and musician Patrick Hyland. While the partnership has been fruitful, the music on Laurel Hell suggests that it might have run its course. Mitski is now at a career crossroads. When The Weeknd exited the world of indie prestige for genuine superstardom seven years ago on 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, he enlisted no less an authority than Max Martin to help with the transition. He fully accepted that his job was now to make larger-than-life pop smashes, and he dedicated himself to the role. Laurel Hell meanwhile is a tentative, frustrating record of half-measures trapped between musical worlds to which Mitski refuses to commit.
I ask again: Does Mitski really want to be here? Does she want to stay or does she want to go? If she stays, does she want to be a mainstream star who performs in stadiums with other mainstream stars, or does she want to be an enigmatic cult indie hero? Laurel Hell suffers from not resolving these issues before now. She has the talent to go either direction, but as it stands her music either needs to be a whole lot catchier or much weirder. The time has come for Mitski to finally choose.