The musician Mitski squatting down on the ground, wearing a black and white dress and white boots
Mitski Credit: Ebru Yildiz

In summer 2019, Mitski Miyawaki (born Mitsuki Francis Laycock) announced that she would be playing her “last show, indefinitely” that September. The singer-songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, who’d become an indie-rock phenom, later clarified that she wasn’t retiring but rather taking a hiatus—she’d spent more than five years on a grueling tour schedule and at least twice that long entirely dedicated to her craft. As she told Rolling Stone in December 2021, “I could see a future self, who would put out music for the sake of keeping the machine running. And that really scared me.” Taking a step back from your career just as your star is on the rise isn’t an easy choice, but Mitski’s return to the limelight this year has shown that refocusing and prioritizing yourself can pay off; her gorgeous new full-length, Laurel Hell, consists mostly of songs she started writing in 2018. Now based in Nashville, Mitski named the album after the flowery yet poisonous mountain laurel, which is native to the eastern and southern U.S. and can grow dense enough to be impassable—according to legend, it’s killed people who’ve tried. It’s easy to find metaphors in something beautiful but potentially dangerous (a musical career, a tumultuous relationship), and Mitski uses the concept to weave emotionally complex tales. The somber “Heat Lightning” kicks off with an intro like the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” minus all the droning, then builds into a rich, piano-flecked ballad. Written with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, “The Only Heartbreaker” asks whether a person who makes the mistakes in a relationship might also be the only one fighting for it; it’s a pop anthem that could be the theme to a long-lost 80s movie about a small-town underdog turned local hero. Many of us have had to pause our regular lives due to the pandemic, and though Mitski’s time away was of her own choosing, Laurel Hell encourages us to see our involuntary periods of quiet reflection as incubators for future triumphs.

Mitski’s Laurel Hell is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. The album will be released 2/4.