The New Mitski Album Marks A New Era (And Is One Of Her Best)

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When we last left Mitski, she was both achieving her greatest commercial success and hinting loudly that her career might be over. This was the weird paradox of 2022’s Laurel Hell, a synth-pop confection promoted with wall-to-wall interviews in which the 32-year-old singer-songwriter repeatedly voiced ambivalence about her burgeoning fame. The record went on to become a significant chart hit and (more importantly) reiterated her popularity on social media platforms like TikTok. But for some long-time fans (like me), Laurel Hell felt like a half-measure that neither whole-heartedly embraced the pop mainstream nor exhibited the beguiling eccentricity of her best work. Mitski’s deeply uncertain perspective had yielded some deeply uncertain music. It was, more bluntly, her worst record to date.

Even if the sorta-pop moves of Laurel Hell hadn’t sounded so wishy-washy, there was reason to believe that Mitski was not going to linger much longer in that album’s dance-centric zone. Over her first six albums, she has moved through different eras in pairs. The bookish art-rock of her first two LPs, 2012’s Lush and 2013’s Retired from Sad, New Career In Business, gave way for the more visceral punk and indie moves of the next two records, 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek and 2016’s Puberty 2, before landing on the poppier sonics of her “indie-fame” period with 2018’s Be The Cowboy and Laurel Hell. But as Mitski increasingly engaged with a mass audience, she was vocally repelled by the bizarre stalker-y intensity that she (and seemingly all musicians of note these days) attracted online. As Mitski’s stardom grew, her subject matter shrank down to a poison pill of profound discomfort with her own celebrity. And — as is often the case with pop stars who can no longer see the world beyond the glare of media (social or otherwise) scrutiny — her songs became less interesting as a result.

Thankfully, an odd-numbered album in Mitski’s discography has heralded yet another change in direction. Judging by the title, one might assume that The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We (due Friday) is a droll commentary on the cruelty of internet commenters stuffed, Trojan horse-style, inside of a statement about climate change. And, to be clear, it is that, kind of. One of my favorite tracks, a spooky soft-rock ballad called “The Frost,” reimagines the apocalypse as a not-so-bad opportunity to experience some solitude, like a bizarro-world Twilight Zone episode where the twist is that the climatic tragedy is secretly a happy ending.

“But me, I was hiding, or forgotten / The only one left,” she murmurs with just enough clarity to do the hypnotic melody justice. “Now the world is mine alone / With no one, no one to share the memory.”

But this album is also something greater and altogether new for Mitski. Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles, with a cast of supporting musicians that include country scene stalwarts like pedal-steel guitarist Fats Kaplin and keyboardist Brooke Waggoner, The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We is as still and insular as Laurel Hell was upwardly mobile and extroverted. The music is stately, dreamy, and extremely pretty, with Mitski’s voice buffeted by a pocket symphony of soft-focus Americana instrumentation, a stirringly cinematic string section, and a ghostly 17-person choir. But the key difference — and, in my mind, improvement — relates to how Mitski is back to playing to her strengths as a maker of songs that build a world in the listener’s mind.

The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We is not the kind of record you make in anticipation of playing stadiums with Harry Styles, as Laurel Hell was. Rather, it is situated in a strange, shadowy environment that exists strictly in the singer’s imagination, and only during the album’s 32-minute duration. Which is why, based on my own personal experience, I suspect listeners will play it compulsively, in order to re-conjure what Mitski has invented for one more half-hour. The land might be inhospitable, but her world draws you in.

Sometimes, it takes hearing a great album to understand a mediocre one. In the case of The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We, playing it on repeat for the past few weeks has clarified my negative feelings about Laurel Hell, an album that sounds even less fully baked now in comparison. On her previous record, Mitski’s regular collaborator Patrick Hyland was ill-suited to produce the sort of ’80s synth soundscapes that are now ubiquitous (and frankly dull) in contemporary pop and indie music. The boilerplate nature of Laurel Hell threatened to box in an artist whose natural instinct is to resist close associations with any particular genre, aesthetic, or popular movement. It made Mitski seem like something she never came close to being before: basic.

On her latest LP, however, Mitski is back on her own specific frequency. The hushed, late-night melancholy of The Land Is Inhospitable might evoke a somewhat scaled-down version of Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, or the subversive “what if The Carpenters were socially conscious?” genius of Weyes Blood. But Mitski’s knack for catching the listener off-guard with an unpredictable mix of lyrical allusions makes the album a frequently disquieting listen, even as the music gives off an inviting warmth. And that vibe is entirely unique to Mitski.

There are love songs (like the painfully gorgeous “Heaven”), there are lonely songs (the chamber-folk beauty “The Deal”), and there are vengeance songs (most notably “I’m Your Man,” a harrowing slice of slow-crawling doom punctuated by the sinister sound of barking hellhounds, which hits like an answer record to Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name). But it’s never clear what’s real and what’s a dream, what’s scary and what’s seductive, or even where Mitski places herself in the album. (She peeks out briefly in “I Don’t Like My Mind,” a stunner about self-loathing that replaces the dance grooves of Laurel Hell with the melodrama of a Roy Orbison mini-oratorio.) Allusions to nature and history abound, creating the sense that the songs take place in America’s past, present, and future simultaneously. It’s the same feeling you get listening to The Band, to whom Mitski pays indirect tribute in another highlight, “Buffalo Replaced,” a powerful dirge in which she hears long-dead beasts in the sound of a freight train in a manner similar to the ancient stampeding cattle who rattle modern walls in “It Makes No Difference.”

Hearing an artist of Mitski’s talent pondering early retirement was disheartening for many reasons. But the suspicion that she was scaling back her ambition in order to play the pop music game was even worse. Therefore, the pleasures of The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We go beyond just the songs, which rank with the very greatest of her career to date, or even the unlikely feat of following up possibly her worst record with possibly her best. What really makes this album one of the year’s most exciting is the reaffirmation of Mitski’s commitment to making music only she can make. This Land, so to speak, was not made for you and me. It was made for Mitski and Mitski alone, and that is a wonderful thing. “One day you’ll figure me out,” she sings on the record’s penultimate track. For her sake and ours, I hope she’s wrong.