What does a musician owe to their audience? Once an individual makes the choice to enter into a career in the public eye, particularly making intensely personal music, it becomes harder and harder to separate one’s life from work. This brutally honest lyricism often performs incredibly well, catapulting an artist into superstardom. However, with that success, there comes a heavy price. Fans can begin to see the artist as less of an individual person and more of a symbol and larger than life figure. Along the way, this can cause fans to lose sight of the fact that artists are human beings with their own lives, hopes and dreams. This disconnect between artist and audience has been chronicled numerous times before, but perhaps none have personified this struggle more than Mitski.
Mitski began her career in the early 2010’s, with a succession of albums in 2014, 2016 and 2018 that cemented her star status. However, Mitski began feeling the pressures of performing. In an interview with Vulture, she said the music business is exploitative, turning people into products to be bought, sold and consumed. Mitski announced her retirement from music during 2019, however, her contract stipulated that she had to record one more album. That same year she began to work on the album, however, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed production, and the end result would become 2022’s “Laurel Hell.”.
The album begins with “Valentine, Texas,” a vibey opener that starts soft but crescendos into a bombastic opening track. One of the album’s singles, “Working for the Knife,” is truly an album highlight, perfectly displaying Mitski’s beautiful voice. The song showcases Mitski’s vocal skills with a catchy pop tune that belies the song’s themes of alienation in the music industry and the artist’s hesitancy to continue. “The Only Heartbreaker” is a perfect encapsulation of the entire album’s style, a mixture of 80’s pop over sad girl indie music. Many of the songs on the album are definite ear worms, however, the radio friendly sound disguises the depth and emotion behind the lyrics.
The album is very short, with its 11 tracks combining for a runtime of only 32 minutes. The songs are short and sweet, making it an easy and quick first listen. While the short runtime may lead the listener to believe there is little below the surface, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the retro 80’s sound mixed with sad-girl indie vocals are easily digestible, but the depth and weight of the emotion packed into the lyrics truly makes this album sit heavily with the contemplative listener and gives it a truly tragic feel. One cannot help but wonder if this is the end of Mitski’s musical career. Will she call it quits and attempt to live out her dream of living as an ordinary person? Or will she press on in her struggle to extract happiness from music? Only time will tell, but if this is the end, “Laurel Hell” serves as a truly emotional and fitting farewell.