“How do you keep writing pop songs when you stop having pop-song feelings?” 

This is the first question singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki asks of pop rock band Weezer in her 2017 review of their album “Pacific Daydream,” where she reflects on our culture’s obsession with youth in contrast to the aging Rivers Cuomo’s songwriting. At the same time, Mitski also tries to negotiate her position as someone soon to exit “the island of young adulthood,” someone who can no longer creatively rely on the impulses and emotions that buzz through our early twenties. 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 hiatus and the unexpected release of “Laurel Hell” this year, I can’t help but ask her that same question from five years ago: How do you keep writing pop songs when you stop having pop-song feelings? 

I believe Mitski’s answer can be found in the recent release of her sixth unexpected album, right in the undergrowth of “Laurel Hell.”

If there’s anything listeners should first know about Mitski, it’s that she is incredibly convincing, which is the result of her masterful sense of delivery. Her voice can curse rosy, kazoo-embellished tunes like “Strawberry Blond” with the dull ache of unrequited love. Meanwhile, her employment of even the smallest details renders her music with emotional intensity and vivid storytelling, like the wistful breath at the beginning of “Once More to See You” and the tense sigh at the beginning of “Me and My Husband.” In effect, she’s skillfully disguised past songs about her relationship with her career with pop-song narratives of romance and romance gone wrong.

The songs of “Laurel Hell”, meanwhile, are much more direct in their delivery. This comes clearest with the album’s first released single “Working for the Knife.” Written shortly after the beginning of Mitski’s hiatus in 2019, the song laments her exhaustion from seeing her aspirations come to life at the great expense of her wellbeing. In the song’s opening, Mitksi saunters back onto the stage regardless. The rise and fall of deep synths slowly lifts the curtains, while flashes of guitar fix the spotlight once again on her. 

“I cry at the start of every movie. I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things too,” Mitski admits wearily, “but I’m working for the knife.” 

This taste of the new Mitski does well to foreshadow the almost resigned tone that permeates the rest of “Laurel Hell” — named after an Appalachian plant known for its beautiful flower yet deadly thorns. “Working for the Knife’s” end captures this idea with a vocal delivery rising in strength and volume, only to drift back down as Mitski realizes that she is “dying for the knife.” Howls of a lone guitar accent the background, reflecting the heartbreak of this realization, and the noise soon fades to silence. Mitski submerges into the thorns. 

The remaining impression leaves listeners wondering how Mitski will re-enter the musical world and speak with the burden of this realization. The listeners too are burdened with a sense of guilt as they realize that they are tied to the knife cutting away at the artist. 

Still, Mitski extends her hand and pulls you in anyway with the introduction of “Valentine, Texas.” Its abrupt swell of strings, accompanied by an uncertain cymbal in 6/8 time reveals a sense of apprehension, just after Mitski asks in a ghostly echo, “Who will I become tonight?” The ensuing storm of sound, with strong gushes of piano and its ascending scales, gives a feeling of hope for the album and this new stage of Mitski’s art — even if her voice remains heavy and almost lethargic against the current. It is a calculated show of weariness that shows how far Mitski’s come from her days of pop-song feelings, the effort it now takes to conjure a raw, seemingly authentic self.  

The overt feelings of reluctance and worry melt away with “Stay Soft,” an upbeat track featuring cowbells and a bouncy disco bassline that call back to the sound of her previous album “Be the Cowboy.” Its lyrics are more tongue-in-cheek as Mitski calls herself a “sex god,” singing also about “opening up” and naturally hardening after getting beaten. As fun as this is, the wordplay doesn’t particularly 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, going only as far as a Forever 21 dressing room. 

“Everyone” and “Heat Lightning” return the album to its darker tonal atmosphere, both songs driven by drum machines and lyrical themes of surrender. They are slow and simple, with brief moments in which piano would emerge like dappled sunlight. Still, I didn’t find either song particularly memorable, instead feeling an absence of feeling on Mitski’s part. 

The album shifts gears dramatically with “Love Me More,” which employs the quintessential sounds of 80s synthpop and light, galloping drums. There is something relentless and addicting about the pre-chorus, where one line melts rhythmically into the next — “Something else to keep me / Here’s my hand” — after which Mitski explodes into the chorus with a frantic call to be loved, fulfilled and drowned. 

The lyrics here do the important work of expressing Mitski’s desire to be revealed by her music rather than using her music as a tool to reveal herself. She pleads with the listener to put in the effort of loving her in a way that feels meaningful, which can only be done if Mitski first gives the effort of offering something meaningful to love. Instead of creating “Love Me More” from the forced idea of a feeling, Mitski thus seeks a feeling to build on through the simple spontaneity of whatever sounds good to her at the moment.

From there on, Mitski takes us through “Laurel Hell’s” goodbyes. 

“I Guess” is the more earnest of these goodbyes. To the background of a watery piano, Mitski’s voice is distant and otherworldly:

“I guess this is the end,” she croons. “Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live.” 

A ghostly string cuts in, airy and just a bit quirky. Brief and bittersweet. Sitting in “the quiet after” of her audience, Mitski stares into a pond. She has long departed that island of young adulthood; she is perhaps departing a nearly ten year career as a musician. Either way, she’s set her distance and she intends on keeping it. But she knows who she owes this long-awaited peace to. 

“Thank you,” she sings with a soft sincerity, “thank you.” 

Finally, “That’s Our Lamp” is the cheery end credits song to really send us — and Mitski — on our separate ways. A celebratory crowd accompanies Mitski’s last chorus, repeating “That’s where you loved me.” They fade out together, the energy of the track still going strong despite its diminishing volume. No longer one 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 some unreachable indie sad girl’s lamentation but instead as a work of art, as her answer to the challenge of creating what feels true to her. Even while she continues to outgrow her emotional landscape.

Kylie Volavongsa is a staff writer for the Magazine. Originally from Olathe, KS, she is a first-year in Silliman College torn hopelessly between English, Psychology, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.