For Mitski, everything’s different now. Or rather, everything clearly started to feel different for her at some point during the long post-release promotional and support cycle for her fifth full-length album, the exceptional Be the Cowboy. Somewhere in there, this odd, esoteric, deeply indie-inclined artist became a modest sensation, which means a significant amount of fame in the stratified pop culture of now. As her base swelled from a small, fervent cadre to an imposing battalion of desperate, despairing faithful, Mitski’s misgivings were palpable. She formally announced she was stepping away for a bit, and all her social media accounts, where she was previously fairly active, were put on the digital equivalent of mothballs. When they blinked back to life before the recent release of her follow-up album, Laurel Hell, the bios were rewritten to sternly informed the masses desperate to connect with her that her management was now tweeting and posting instead of her. “Valentine, Texas,” the stately album opener starts with Mitski singing, “Let’s step carefully into the dark/ Once we’re in, I’ll remember my way around/ Who will I be tonight?/ Who will I become tonight?” An artist who could previously feel painfully, dangerously open on her records lets us know it’s going to be more difficult for her to crack her soul open for fans to feast upon.
If the sense of restraint is noticeable on Laurel Hell, the mesmerizing craft of Mitski’s music making hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Wounded “Working for the Knife,” coolly vibrant “Stay Soft,” and smooth, engrossing “Heat Lightning” all extend the lavish, layered construction that Mitski has been evolving rapidly on her recent albums. The lyrics invite unpacking and analysis, but the music pushes back against that instinct, driving the thought that maybe simply immersing in the sweep of it all is the wiser course of action. She also expands her approach in sly, subtle ways: “The Only Heartbreaker” plays with the plingy tones of mid-eighties pop, and “Should’ve Been Me” undulates with a modernized smooth disco groove. “There’s Nothing Left Here for You” is almost Sinéad-esque in its offhand majesty, and “Love Me More” is like a version of Robyn with loamy mud under the fingernails that race along the synthesizer keys (“I wish that this would go away/ But when I’m done singing this song/ I will have to find something else/ To do to keep me here/ Something else to keep me”). Every track is its own decisive statement, and yet they all feel like part of a greater whole, a overall thesis that Mitski is still formulating, doubling back on, demolishing with a two-armed hurl against the concrete only to glue it back together with meticulous attention.
Mitski’s marketplace trajectory hasn’t leveled off. Laurel Hell was the top-selling physical album in the country the week of its release, a designation that’s admittedly a little like an oiled-up trophy in the streaming age. (Beach House just notched the same achievement in a week in which the new album in question, Once Twice Melody, couldn’t crack the Billboard Top 10.) However she might feel about it, Mitski is offering songs a lot of people want to hear, and that more of a few of them think they truly need. I get where they’re all coming from.