“How do you keep writing pop songs when you stop having pop song feelings?”
That’s the first question singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki asks pop rock band Weezer in his review 2017 from their album “Pacific Daydream,” where she reflects on our culture’s obsession with youth in contrast to Rivers Cuomo’s aging songwriting. At the same time, Mitski is also trying to negotiate his position as someone soon to leave “young adult island”, someone who can no longer creatively rely on the impulses and emotions buzzing at the start of the twenteeth. Someone who doesn’t really have pop-song feelings anymore.
Mitski’s music doesn’t quite exist in the realm of pop. But after the release of “Be the Cowboy” in 2018, an originally permanent break and the unexpected release of “Laurel Hell” this year, I can’t help but ask him the same question from five years ago: how do you keep writing pop songs when you stop having feelings pop?
I believe Mitski’s answer lies in the recent release of his unexpected sixth album, right in the undergrowth of “Laurel Hell.”
If there’s anything listeners should know first about Mitski, it’s that she’s incredibly compelling, which is a result of her masterful sense of delivery. Her voice can curse rosy, embellished tunes like “Strawberry Blond” with the dull pain of unrequited love. Meanwhile, his use of minute details renders his music with emotional intensity and vivid storytelling, like the melancholy breath at the start of “Once More to See You” and the tense sigh at the start of “Me and My Husband”. Indeed, she cleverly disguised past songs on his relationship with his career with tales of romance and romance pop songs gone wrong.
Songs from “Laurel Hell”, meanwhile, are much more direct in their delivery. This appears most clearly with the album’s first single “Working for the Knife”. Written shortly after Mitski began hiatus in 2019, the song laments his exhaustion from seeing his aspirations come to life at the expense of his well-being. In the opening of the song, Mitksi returns to the stage despite everything. The rise and fall of deep synths slowly raise the curtains, while flashes of guitar shine the spotlight on her again.
“I cry at the start of every movie. I guess because I wish I had done things too,” Mitski admits wearily, “but I work for the knife.
This taste of the new Mitski foreshadows the almost resigned tone that permeates the rest of “Laurel Hell” – named after an Appalachian plant known for its beautiful flower but deadly thorns. The end of “Working for the Knife” captures this idea with a voice that rises in strength and volume, only to drop again as Mitski realizes that she will “die for the knife”. The howls of a lone guitar accentuate the background, reflecting the grief of this achievement, and the noise quickly fades to silence. Mitski dives into the thorns.
The impression that remains leaves listeners wondering how Mitski will reenter the musical world and speak with the burden of this realization. Listeners too are wracked with guilt when they realize they are tied to the knife that cuts the artist.
Still, Mitski reaches out and lures you in anyway with the introduction of “Valentine, Texas.” Its abrupt swell of strings, accompanied by an uncertain 6/8-beat cymbal reveals a sense of foreboding, just after Mitski asks in a ghostly echo, “Who will I become tonight?” The ensuing sonic storm, with loud spurts of piano and its rising scales, gives a sense of hope for the album and this new stage of Mitski’s art — even if his voice remains heavy and almost lethargic at countercurrent. It’s a calculated show of weariness that shows just how much Mitski comes from his days of song-pop feelings, the effort it now takes to conjure up a raw, seemingly authentic self.
Overt feelings of reluctance and trepidation dissipate with “Stay Soft,” an upbeat track with cowbells and a bouncy disco bassline reminiscent of the sound of his previous album “Be the Cowboy.” His lyrics are more ironic as Mitski calls himself a “sex god”, also singing about “openness” and natural hardening after being beaten. As fun as it sounds, the pun doesn’t add much to a very commercial-sounding pop song. While “Working for the Knife” and “Valentine, Texas” uniquely explore Mitski’s current position as an artist, “Stay Soft” doesn’t reach the same expressive heights, only going so far as a Forever dressing room. 21.
“Everyone” and “Heat Lightning” bring the album back to its darker tonal mood, both drum machine-driven songs and lyrical themes of surrender. They are slow and simple, with brief moments where the piano would emerge like a dappled sun. Still, I didn’t find any of the songs particularly memorable, instead sensing an absence of feeling from Mitski.
The album shifts gears dramatically with “Love Me More,” which uses the quintessential sounds of ’80s synthpop and light, galloping drums. There’s something relentless and addictive about the pre-chorus, where one line merges rhythmically into the next – “Something else to keep me / Here’s my hand” – after which Mitski explodes in the chorus with a frantic call to be loved, filled and drowned.
The lyrics here do the important job of expressing Mitski’s desire to be revealed through her music rather than using her music as a tool to reveal herself. She begs the listener to make the effort to love her in a way that makes sense, which can only be done if Mitski first makes the effort to offer something meaningful to love. . Instead of creating “Love Me More” from the forced idea of a feeling, Mitski thus seeks a feeling to build through the simple spontaneity of whatever pleases him at the time.
From there, Mitski takes us through the “Laurel Hell” farewell.
“I guess” is the most serious of these farewells. Against the backdrop of a watery piano, Mitski’s voice is distant and otherworldly:
“I guess that’s the end,” she hums. “Without you, I still don’t quite know how to live.”
A ghostly chain cuts through, airy and just a little eccentric. Short and bittersweet. Sitting in the “quiet after” of her audience, Mitski gazes into a pond. She has long since left this island as a young adult; she may be leaving a nearly decade-long career as a musician. Either way, she’s put her distance and she intends to keep it. But she knows to whom she owes this long-awaited peace.
“Thank you”, she sings with sweet sincerity, “thank you”.
Finally, “That’s Our Lamp” is the happy end-credits song that really sends us — and Mitski — on our separate ways. A festive crowd accompanies Mitski’s final chorus, repeating “That’s where you loved me.” They fade together, with the energy of the track still strong despite its decreasing volume. More the kind to leave us with the youthful angst of “Last Words of a Shooting Star” or “Class of 2013”, Mitski invites us to remember this album not as an unattainable indie sad girl lament, but rather as a work of art, as her answer to the challenge of creating what feels true to her. Even as she continues to outgrow her emotional landscape.