When Mitski released her sixth album Laurel Hell last year she seemed to be stuck between worlds. The album spoke of an artist for whom the niche but intense level of fame she had obtained had become a burden. “I used to think I'd be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same,” she sang on the single “Working For The Knife” with the weariness of a worker punching the clock and counting down the days to retirement. The album was rumored to be the last from an artist who said that she had developed a “constant ticker of people’s potential criticism or commentary, even in the middle of making it.” The weight of outside voices had started to become debilitating. But it didn’t sound like a contractual obligation. Laurel Hell was replete with ’80s synth-pop production, the kind you order from the indie-star-graduates-to-the-mainstream store. I was more keen on the album than some critics — what it lacked in emotionality it made up for with glossy pop hooks — but it wasn’t clear what exactly she was going for: was it a wave goodbye or gesturing for the attention of those who had turned her 2018 song “Nobody” into a viral TikTok hit by repeating some of the same tricks?
All of which made the rapid arrival of a new album more surprising. Even at her most prolific, Mitski had left sizable gaps between releases. That pace — plus an expired record deal — would have suggested a long break was on the table. As she revealed in July, however, Mitski renegotiated her deal with Dead Oceans and decided to keep making music. The result of that volte-face is The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We, her most chewy and lived-in album.
Mitski has compared The Land Is Inhospitable… to someone who is exhausted and enduring a midlife crisis. Signs of any kind of significant breakdown are few and far between, however, as she writes in painterly terms about the ebb and flow of romance, heartbreak, and the gray areas between the two. It’s a scaled-down yet grand, like ship in a bottle. From empty rooms (“I Don’t Like My Mind”) to idyllic country lanes (“Heaven”) and as far out as the Moon (“Moon Replaced”), the album moves its location constantly, yet it remains anchored emotionally to two opposing states: isolation and partnership They bubble across a collection of songs that develop occasionally but more often hold their nerve as Mitski scoops out the marrow from memories of falling in and out of love.
Mitski’s most visible fanbase, the fans that led to her leaving social media and even deleting a simple request to see fewer phones at her live shows, is the subject for an entirely different essay. But The Land Is Inhospitable…will please those who like to reduce Mitski to a depressive and hopeless caricature reporting from the frontline of the misery fields. On “The Deal” she pleads with powers above her to take her soul from her she “can’t bear to keep it.” A song that could read melodramatic is made more grounded by a modest arrangement that pairs acoustic guitars with a string section and military-like drums that speed up as the pleading intensifies. Lush orchestral arrangements run throughout the album, most notably on “My Love Mine All Mine.” But the overall sound, however, is a little more austere, aligning with Retired From Sad, New Career In Business’s “I Want You” or Laurel Hell stand out “”Heat Lightning”. The lack of any kind of electric guitar is immediately noticeable and makes sense of her decision to tour this album acoustically [https://mitski.com/pages/tour]
In addition to the strings, there is a lot of country on the album, with pedal steel guitars lighting up “Heaven” and “My Love Mine All Mine,” as well as the grief of “I Don’t Like My Mind,” which takes Mitski’s loneliness to its natural end point and imagines her as the last person on Earth. Feelings of abandonment are, naturally, exacerbated by memories of togetherness and Mitski writes elegantly about love throughout the album. On “Heaven” she compares a partner’s half-finished coffee to “a kiss left of you” marrying it to one of the prettiest melodies on the album. “I’m Your Man,” meanwhile, is a clear highlight, Mitski reckoning with a bond from the pits of self-loathing: “I’m sorry I’m the one you love / No one will ever love me like you again, she cries as a wave of croaking frogs, chirping insects, and barking dogs washes over her howl of despair.
Mitski’s deadpan humor still shines through, like on the gluttonous “I Don’t Like My Mind” when she sings “on an inconvenient Christmas, I eat a cake / A whole cake, all for me!.” “Bug Like An Angel,” meanwhile, finds Mitski, alone again, discovering something heavenly at the bottom of her glass. The drink, she reasons, is the only company she needs as a choir underlines the point with a cry of “Family!” It’s a song that could be rendered morose but in Mitski’s hands comes out as a knowing wink to a self-indulgent feeling.
The Land Is Inhospitable… acts, if anything, as a riposte to the idea of Mitski as a product. There is no prevailing mood or tone to latch onto, or turn into a meme, that isn’t washed away by an opposing feeling or moment of absurdity. It’s an album about love, but one that spends as much time pondering absence as it does the feeling of true connection. There are moments that soar and some that land with more of a thud (“Buffalo Replaced” is one of a number of nods to nature that don’t quite feel as resonant as Mitski’s writing about human behavior). It’s only on album closer “I Love Me After You” that a statement about where Mitski is at, seven albums deep into a career that, somewhat to her despair, continues to rise. “Stride through the house naked / Don’t even care that the curtains are open / Let the darkness see me,” she sings. It’s an unadorned dispatch from someone who has managed to liberate themselves from expectation, not by ignoring the constant feedback ticker but simply outgrowing it.