Mitski review, Laurel Hell: Artist owns her contrariness on this free-sounding jumble of ideas

Mitski in album artwork for Laurel Hell (Ebru Yildiz)
Mitski in album artwork for Laurel Hell (Ebru Yildiz)

Heaven knows what Harry Styles’s fans will make of Mitski when she opens up for him on tour this summer. They’ll be in the zone for “Watermelon Sugar” highs, and 31-year-old Mitski Miyawaki is going to wallop them with experimental ennui. Though Laurel Hell finds her edging warily into the most poppy territory of her career, the mood of her sixth album is still despondent. She sounds like a sarky indie kid slumped against the wall at the school disco, wondering what the point is. “How do other people live? I wonder how they keep it up?” she asks over the Eighties pulse of “Love Me More”. “When I’m done singing this song/ I will have to find something else/ To do to keep me here…”

The tension between that craving for dance and the yearning to walk away dominates Laurel Hell. Tendon-snapping beats on bangers such as “Love Me More” are balanced by sulky dirges such as “I Guess” and “Everyone”, on which Mitski sounds (relatably) like she’s shut herself in the bathroom while the party outside rages on. She owns her contrariness: “Everyone said don’t go that way/ So of course I said/ I think I’ll go that way/ And I left the door open to the dark…”

The daughter of a Japanese mother, and an American father who worked for the government, Mitski had a nomadic upbringing. She lived in Turkey, China, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo before settling in the US, where she studied at the Purchase College Conservatory of Music. This history is reflected in the way her songs often travel at tangents, boldly adventuring between genres, with an eyebrow raised at what stays the same wherever you go. Her experience of classical music gives her confidence to embrace the weirdness of dissonance and drone (you can hear that she loves Stravinsky) with either drama or detachment. Frequently, she chooses both at the same time.

Her strong voice (which she honed as a teen by singing along to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey) has an edge of glassy resignation and frustrated introversion. “I hope you leave right before the sun comes up so I can watch it alone…” she sang on her 2012 debut album, Lush. The careful tartness of 2014 lyrics such as, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do, I finally do,” saw her named the “21st-century poet laureate of young adulthood” by NPR.

After her fifth album Be The Cowboy (2018) catapulted her into the spotlight, Mitski told the BBC: “I got really scared because I could see myself caving in and being swept away by that current, and putting out music that I don’t really care about.” This fear is directly addressed on Laurel Hell. Over the gut-churning grind of “Working for the Knife”, she sings: “I cry at the start of every movie/ I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too/ But I’m working for the knife.” Her bright pink electric guitar seems to sneer up at her during the closing solo. Elsewhere her anxiety is expressed through the conflicting tunes and overwhelming layers of synths of “Valentine, Texas”.

There’s a breathy, bittersweet tone to Mitski’s voice that recalls Julee Cruise’s sultry, slo-mo strangeness. She uses this to its best effect on the terrific “Stay Soft”: a track with a defiantly muscular melody and propulsive retro-disco beat. It also glides like a heat haze through the betrayal tale “Should’ve Been Me”. I’m still unsure about this track’s jaunty beat, a weird mash-up of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover”, overlaid with cascading Abba-style piano chords. It’s one of several tracks on Laurel Hell that lack Mitski’s usual crisp crafting. It’s as though she’s thrown a jumble of ideas up in the air without thinking too much about where they land. At times, this means her sixth record feels refreshingly free and at others a little too sketchy. But it’ll still make her fans think, sigh, shrug and smirk.