Back in September of 2019, Mitski had finally had enough. She left fans stunned and concerned when she announced that her Central Park performance, scheduled on the 9th of that month, would be her “last show indefinitely.” People took to online forums, trying desperately to decipher Mitski’s cryptic use of ‘indefinitely’, and speculating about the potential causes of this bemusing decision, and more importantly, the potential effects.
Thankfully, Mitski would clarify soon after, to a collective sigh of relief, that her departure from the music scene would not be a permanent one. She initially reasoned that her five years of non-stop touring had left her exhausted and entirely untethered from any semblance of a real home. She would later clarify in a tweet that her efforts to thrive in the music industry had made her both disillusioned by and numbed to the experience. “I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending on staying in the game, in the constant churn,” she said.
That Mitski had become numb bears repeating. She herself pointed out that by becoming devoid of emotion, she was missing the key ingredient of all her music: her feelings. And so, despite all of the recent accolades she’d received for her stunning and dripping-with-feeling fifth album, Be the Cowboy, and her attendant rise to the fame and ever-growing fanbase, Mitski would make good on her words and dip into a self-imposed dormancy. For her, the accolades were a curse. Her ascendency to the throne only added pressure for her to maintain her successes, and this quickly cast a shadow of self-doubt over every project she attempted to make.
Fans would just have to wait.
At some point during her hiatus, Mitski realized that she was still contractually bound to release another album for her label, Dead Oceans. And, long story short, she would finally re-emerge in late 2021, three years the wiser, with the shocking announcement of a new full-length, Laurel Hell. The album title itself referred to the large thickets of laurel bushes spread across the Southern Appalachians, where people have become stuck in their massive tangles and never made it out alive. More tellingingly, however, is that ‘laurel’ also means recognition of an award or achievement, and, given its pairing with ‘hell’, it provided a clear-cut indicator of her mindset at that point. The music reflected this idea as well, and while it was warmly received—the album even spent a week atop the Billboard charts—you could tell that it was the product of a different, more nuanced Mitski who was at least trying to care less about the reception it got.
And this brings us to Mitski’s new release, the compellingly titled, The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We. True to the name, the album is dark and brooding; a rumination on lonely love and the havoc and agony it can generate. Mitski faces the love in her life head on, highlighting both its redemptive and destructive qualities. To augment the desolate longing of her poetic, otherworldly laments, Mitski has fashioned a striking sonic evolution from the edgy synth-pop that’s preceded it. This is Mitski as a forlorn country troubadour, conjuring the analog soundscapes of 70-era Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, as well as the later releases of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. A more recent spiritual touchstone is the moody, dreamy Neko Case classic Blacklisted.
Mitski spoke recently in an interview with BBC Radio 1, and she indicated that she worked on the album with orchestrator Drew Erickson, who conducted its arrangements by gathering a team of top guns (some of whom have played on actual Disney soundtracks) in Los Angeles and laid down the orchestral parts there. Mitski set out all of the choir parts herself, with a total of 17 voices utilized; 12 in Los Angeles and five in Nashville. In the latter city she stayed and recorded her parts with a proper ‘Nashville’ band and studio. The confluence between the high and lonesome and the cinematic creates a brilliant, beautiful, and heady aesthetic, and Mitski stands in front of it all, displaying a fervor that (re)establishes her as the preeminent singer-songwriter of her generation.
The Land is Inhospitable and So Are begins with “Bug Like an Angel”, which is also the first single released from the record. It’s a bold and deeply moving dirge, which begins with her plaintive acoustic strums and reverbed vocals almost recalling Guyville-era Liz Phair at her softest. Mitski coos, “There’s a bug like an angel stuck to the bottom of my glass / with a little bit left / When I was older I learned I’m a drinker / sometimes a drink feels like family.” This is followed immediately by an explosive and surprising choir echoing, “Faaamilyyyyyy!” which then recedes, allowing Mitski to ask, “Did you go and make promises you can’t keep?” The choir then rejoins her as she alluded to those broken promises: “They break you right back / Break you right back.” And this, if you’re wired a certain way, will send literal shivers down your spine. Mitski’s performance here is both daring and confident, affecting and devastating, and she invokes a graceful empathy in her haunting delivery.
Second single “Heaven” immediately establishes the ‘Nashville’ in her Nashville band, as a slow drum shuffle is met with soft acoustic guitar strums and the lonesome wail of steel guitar. During the BBC 1 interview, Mitski described “Heaven” as a “classically romantic song… seeking to cherish the small amount of time you have with the one you love.” The song depicts Heaven as, ‘Well, let’s leave the world outside of our room for now, and enjoy this beautiful love we have’.
“Heaven”‘s lyrics are paired perfectly with song’s countrified lilt, which is steadily encroached upon by surging strings that build to majestic proportions by the song’s dramatic finale. The orchestration is never pandering or gratuitous, and is there to manifest a certain emotional gravitas before swiftly receding, never a second too late. It’s just as it was with her considered inclusion of the choir in “Bug Like an Angel”; in both cases, her relative restraint ensures that these crescendos never outstay their welcome, and after multiple listens, the emotional impact does not diminish. The shivers still come.
“Star” places the orchestration front and center as strings swirl and multiply, steadily building to a dazzling frenzy. This is Mitski reaching for the firmament. For her, love is like a star in that, despite it no longer being there, still shines on when you look up at it. “I’ll keep a leftover light burning / so you can keep looking up,” she emotes. “Isn’t that worth holding on?” Mitski’s dense metaphorical prowess is on full display here, and one of the many ways she likens love to a greater outside force throughout the album’s slim 32 minutes.
Some might recognize the influence of Mazzy Star on mid-album track, “The Deal”. The band shuffles along on a “Fade Into You” sway, while Mitski sings, “There’s a deal you can make on a midnight walk alone / Look around, listen close, hear it call from above / It will ask you what you’d give and what you’d take for it in return.” She is ready to give away her soul, “just to give it,” and will face the consequences. As the urgency in Mitski’s voice continues to rise, a maelstrom of drums comes crashing in, leading to a menacing climax as Mitski repeats, “I’ve made a deal.”
On “The Frost” a warbling church organ and mandolin are added to the mix, and the song advances, sans the orchestral accoutrements, as a gorgeous meditation on loneliness. Mitski observes, “The frost, it looks like dust settles in the world / after everyone’s long been gone / But me, I was hiding or forgotten / the only one left, now the world is mine alone.”
The stunning “I’m Your Man” unfolds quietly, just Mitski and her guitar. “One day you’ll figure me out / I’ll meet judgment by the hounds / People always gave me love / others were never to blame, after all / You believed me like a God / I betray you like a man.” As the song comes to a close, she is surrounded by barking dogs, croaking peepers, and a multi-part choir singing into the night.
With The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, Mitski seems to have regained her footing and created a laser-focused album, filled with sadness and hope and defeat, all with the brilliant backdrop of organic Americana and bombastic orchestral passages. The album’s brevity only adds to the allure, as it is stripped of any excess, and devoid of a single misstep. It is a distinct departure, but ultimately unsurprising in its flawless execution. As long as Mitski is at the helm, fully rejuvenated from her hibernation, we can only expect the best from her from here on out.