Mitski Miyawaki has a complicated relationship with fame. She withholds intimate details in interviews – one journalist was requested not to reveal the name of her cat – and retreated from social media in 2019. The same year, she announced her retirement onstage. She subsequently reconsidered, although a persistent online rumour suggested the ensuing album, her sixth, was another farewell. Pop-facing, trailed by Working for the Knife, a single that seemed to be about not really wanting to return to music, and packaged in a sleeve that depicted her trapped by lines meant to represent her own songs, Laurel Hell was held to be a contractual obligation that, once fulfilled, spelled the end.
We are hardly talking about Taylor Swift levels of stardom here: in 11 years, Mitski has released just one big-selling album – 2018’s Be the Cowboy – and has never had a traditional hit single. But hers is a resolutely 21st-century kind of success, involving TikTok virality – by 2022, her music had soundtracked more than 2.5m videos on the platform – memes and hashtags, tracks that go gold and platinum without grazing the charts, indicative of being streamed obsessively over a long period. That a lot of the memes and hashtags suggest her music is a replacement for therapy perhaps says something about the intensity of her fanbase. You could see why she might consider beating a permanent retreat.
But here she is, back with her record label and another album, albeit one that carries an aura of reset about it. The first thing you hear on The Land Is Inhospitable is tape hiss, followed by nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, redolent of the instruments on which people usually learn to play: the sounds of someone tentatively trying out recording in their bedroom. The whole album feels noticeably different from anything she has released before. Its sound sometimes leans towards shoegazing – as on Buffalo Replaced, which pulls off the trick of seeming simultaneously forceful and lethargic – but its main currency is country, or rather the country-inflected pop that came out of Los Angeles studios in the late 60s and early 70s, the realm of Glen Campbell’s collaborations with Jimmy Webb or the Nashville-tinted end of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s oeuvre. There are weeping pedal steel guitars, ballads in waltz time, brushes pattering against snare drums, shimmering reverb, choral backing vocals and epic orchestrations: the arrangement of When Memories Snow reaches Phil Spector levels of lavishness.
This is classic songwriter territory, the better to show off Mitski’s considerable songwriting chops. The album’s 32 minutes are filled with melodies; she can write straightforward love songs, filled with beautiful imagery – “I bend like a willow thinking of you / Like a murmuring brook curving about you / As I sip on the rest of the coffee you left / A kiss left of you,” runs one verse of Heaven – but what tends to get lost amid the earnest discussion of her lyrics is how darkly funny they are. You could, if you wished, characterise I Don’t Like My Mind as a song about loneliness, its protagonist attempting to silence unpleasant memories through overwork and sensory indulgence. Yet it feels a lot lighter on its feet than that description suggests. “A whole cake! All for me!” she wails, melodramatically elongating the vowel sounds. “Then I get sick and throw up.” Similarly, you could read Bug Like an Angel as a confessional about alcohol, but it somehow doesn’t seem as if it wants you to. “Sometimes a drink feels like family,” she sings, before a massed chorus suddenly and incongruously bursts in: “FAMILY!”
Mitski’s voice is usually tender and intimate, but has another mode, one suggestive of a woman raising her eyes skyward as she sings. She deploys it during I’m Your Man, leavening a song about the insidious destructive power of patriarchy: it’s leavened further by its conclusion, which features airy, wordless backing vocals and snarling dogs, like the Swingle Singers being savaged to death.
Perhaps it is intended to diffuse some of the intense seriousness with which fans greet her work. Either way, Lee Hazlewood feels like an apposite comparison and not merely because of the album’s sound: The Land Is Inhospitable shares his ability to slip between the heartfelt and the sardonic without ever losing its grip on the listener. It ends with the singer alone on I Love Me After You – rather than heartbroken, she is celebrating her freedom by walking around the house naked (“don’t even care that the curtains are open”) – which feels about right. There are an awful lot of singer-songwriters around exploring the kind of subjects Mitski touches on here: disillusionment, isolation, broken relationships, overindulgence. But it is questionable whether anyone else is doing it with this much skill, this lightness of touch or indeed, straightforward melodic power: in the best possible sense, Mitski feels out on her own.
This week Alexis listened to
Jalen Ngonda – What a Difference She Made
Ngonda’s debut album, Come Around and Love Me, is magnificent: his incredible voice is in full effect on this doo-wop inflected ballad.