Mitski’s Ghost Stories

Mitski’s Ghost Stories

The singer-songwriter’s new album, Laurel Hell, explores the terror of fame.


Three years ago, during the summer of 2019, Mitski announced a hiatus. For the past five years, she’d been touring nonstop. The 2016 breakout success of her fourth studio album, Puberty 2, had vaulted her from a well-loved indie artist to a crossover success story, then onward and upward into the firmament of pop stardom. Lorde tapped her as an opening act in her 2018 Melodrama tour; Iggy Pop name-checked her on his radio show; her subsequent album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, was a perennial favorite on year-end lists. She still didn’t have a permanent mailing address and stored her things at her parents’ house, but no matter—she was, as NPR crowned her, the 21st century’s poet laureate of young adulthood, and her future, as Pitchfork declared, was “limitless.”

In a recent interview, Mitski recounted the time leading up to her hiatus as a period of detachment: Looking back, she said, she couldn’t remember long stretches of the overlapping tours. Her hair was graying; her body was breaking down. “I felt it was shaving away my soul, little by little,” she told Rolling Stone. But even in moments of exhaustion, she was productive. Stuck in Kuala Lumpur during the holidays, depressed and lonely, she had written “Nobody,” the best-known track on Be the Cowboy, which in 2021 became TikTok famous—and as a result, according to Billboard, multiplied her daily streaming numbers sevenfold during both the height of the pandemic and her retraction from the public eye.

Mitski’s most ardent fans can be intense, too: They cry at shows, they call her “mom,” and they tattoo her lyrics onto their bodies. They say her music saved them. John Doe from the punk band X once turned to Phoebe Bridgers at a Mitski show in Los Angeles and commented, “All these kids look like they’re at fucking church.”

The unfortunate reality of being an artist beloved for granting unflinching access to your emotional underbelly is that, unless you want to do it in obscurity, you don’t exist in a vacuum—your art is always steps away from misguided co-option and misinterpretation. As your star rises, access to your pain becomes a service, or a resource to be tapped. With fame, Mitski realized art was a bad job—one she wanted to quit. She was sick of selling her emotions and memories, little by little.

So by the summer of 2019, she made the announcement: She was leaving social media, and her September appearance at SummerStage in New York City’s Central Park would be her last live show “indefinitely.”

“It’s time to be a human again,” she tweeted.

Laurel Hell, Mitski’s newest album, is a putative reclamation of her agency—and it does come across as Be the Cowboy’s corrosive rebuttal. (Cheekily, one of the songs is titled “Everyone,” in which she sings, “Everyone said, ‘Don’t go that way’ / So of course to that I said, ‘I think I’ll go that way.’”) While Be the Cowboy thrashes with manic electricity, each song either building to an explosion or crackling in breathless anticipation of one, Laurel Hell maintains a rueful distance, looking back with something like pity. “You stay soft, get beaten,” Mitski sings. “Only natural to harden up.”

Be the Cowboy pantomimed this kind of fatigue, playacting a hard-won world-weariness with the jaded characters of “Me and My Husband,” “Blue Diner,” and “Two Slow Dancers.” Laurel Hell gives us a Mitski who has caught a glimpse of this herself: “Working for the Knife,” the album’s lodestar, is a haunting ballad of a working artist forced to shoulder the crushing churn of work and self-promotion. “I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it wouldn’t go without me,” she sings. “I start the day high and I end so low / ’Cause I’m working for the knife.” In the song’s music video, Mitski doffs a cowboy hat and, dead-eyed, turns to an empty theater. She collapses to the floor, rises and dances with a manic smile to canned applause, throws herself down again, and beats her fists against the ground, the meaty pounding of her hands against the wood as she pummels it drowning out the song. The video ends with a closeup of Mitski’s forced grin. The stage lured her back and crushed her again.

“I used to think I’d be done by 20,” she sings in “Working for the Knife.” “Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change.” The new songs may flash a weary attitude, the video may depict her flaying herself onstage, but there she is, as before—demonstrating her pain to you, trapped under the spotlight.

Mitski, like some of her contemporaries—Lorde or Billie Eilish, for example—is using her new songs to explore the particular fatigue that online fame has produced: Our narrator, ambivalent about dealing with the absurdities of being a popular artist in a crumbling world, cleanses herself of social media and, hopefully, the crushing, deluded expectations of success. Unlike other riffs on this arc, Mitski’s version doesn’t present us with the redemptive beatitude of the other side. Instead, she tells us tales from the crypt, the horror of being raised from the dead.

Laurel Hell, then, is about the singer’s acceptance that her pain and vulnerability are currency; their performance can be cashed in, but the expectation that she will expose them to others with searing, consuming honesty, on demand and without end, exacts a punishing toll. “And I opened my arms wide to the dark / I said, ‘Take it all, whatever you want,’” she sings in “Everyone.” “I didn’t know I was numb / I didn’t know what it would take.”

Lyrically vivid as ever, Mitski tosses us images of lingering specters in the dark, “wet teeth shining, eyes glimmering by a fire,” as she sings on “Valentine, Texas” in a low, trance-like murmur over the groans of an organ. At its best, Laurel Hell seethes with these kinds of monsters—ones you see at the corner of your eye, all the more frightening for never fully showing themselves. “I left the door open to the dark / I said, ‘Come in, come in, whatever you are,’” she sings in “Everyone.” “But it didn’t want me yet.”

Mitski is comfortable in horror; as a genre, it’s suited to the comic, sometimes caustic, always self-conscious spirit at the foundation of her best songs. Laurel Hell’s best moments embrace this dynamic. “Open up your heart / Like the gates of hell,” she sings on “Stay Soft.” In the music video, figures in Edo-period masks—blond-haired, blue-eyed—chase her out of a garden she’s tending, then corner her and drag her into their lair. “Stay soft, get eaten,” she sings with a wink as the masked figures begin their torments. She slays them and feeds their blood to an Audrey II–like flower, which wiggles with fiendish glee in her hand.

But if Laurel Hell is a ghost story, it’s only as good as the teller is at sustaining a mood. This is the case when the enemy is ambiguous, and therefore disconcerting, as in the brilliant music video for “Stay Soft” or the demonic thrashing that closes out the video for “Working for the Knife.” The image of a hand plucking Mitski from her life and dropping her into a labyrinth in “Should’ve Been Me” crests on a shimmer of synths and carries us with it, into the perplexing daydream that stole her day and deeper into an uncertain, troubling world.

But this isn’t most of Laurel Hell. “Only Heartbreaker,” the catchiest and tightest song on the album, is also its dissonant chord: a moment of high-octane fun that dissolves as soon as it ends. “I need you to love me more,” Mitski tells us in the similarly hyperactive “Love Me More.” “Love enough to clean me up.” Tied up so neatly, the opportunity to feel an uneasy chill deflates into a resigned shrug; what could unsettle merely makes us pine. A limitation that Mitski could thrive on, if she leaned into it, is also a truism of the genre: The real horror is what you don’t reveal.

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