Arts and Entertainment

The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We: Mitski Remains A Star

On Mitski’s new album, she explores unfamiliar sonic territory and influences while retaining elements of her signature style.

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By Benson Chen

For four years, indie-pop sensation Mitski was absent from the music scene. Last year, she returned from her hiatus with the release of her synth-infused album Laurel Hell. The album’s lyrics, which described her tumultuous relationship with music and stardom, seemed to foretell a permanent retirement, but that was far from the case. She announced her impending seventh album and its mouthful of a title, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We on July 23. This record, released on September 15, removes the listener from the streamlined ‘80s pop sound of Laurel Hell and transports them into a desolate, yet beautiful musical setting.

Mitski’s first few albums were best classified as indie rock, with an emphasis on orchestral elements and vulnerable lyrics identifying the pains of young adulthood. However, in the past five years, she has moved toward pop and an increasingly electronic sound. Many of her songs from Be The Cowboy (2018) and Laurel Hell featured blunt lyrics that communicated her emotions directly instead of utilizing the symbolism of her earliest albums, a shift that has yielded the most commercial success of her career.

Mitski’s rise to celebrity status within the niche of sad girl singer-songwriter music was rapidly facilitated by social media, ironically taking place while she was on a break from the exhausting productivity demanded by her career. Mitski told fans at a concert in Central Park that that would be her “last concert indefinitely” in 2019. But by mid-2021, her songs “Nobody” and “Washing Machine Heart” from Be The Cowboy had gone viral on TikTok, becoming the meme soundtracks to trends where users run away from the camera or lament figures missing in their lives. Though these tracks, irreversibly branded as “TikTok songs,” inevitably faded from the limelight, Mitski suddenly had an influx of new fans from a younger generation who eagerly latched onto her music’s themes of loneliness and yearning. Thus, the best publicity Mitski ever experienced took root during her complete absence. Does Mitski enjoy her newfound popularity? It’s not clear, but her opinions regarding her fame never are.

The Land is cohesive both in subject matter and musical production. Mitski’s lyrics and acoustic instrumentation have a clear country influence that puts the album at home in a Western epic. She also draws inspiration from other quintessential American genres like folk, especially in the album’s instrumentation, which is laden with pedal steel guitar, violin, and even a gospel choir. Mitski herself described this as her “most American” album. The narrative formed by her songs is that of the most classically American hero, a solitary and lovesick cowboy riding through uncultivated land. This concept is most overt in “Buffalo Replaced,” in which she croons, “Freight train stampedin’ through my backyard / It’ll run across the plains like the new buffalo replaced.” As the track draws to a close, Mitski’s powerful, echoing wail stretches across the rural, romantic scene she evokes.

The Land signals the return of an artistic strength absent in Mitski’s recent works through its use of metaphoric and open-ended songwriting, especially compared to the straightforward lyrics of Laurel Hell and Be The Cowboy. “Heaven,” the third track, describes an enveloping, ardent love: “Now I bend like a willow / Thinkin’ of you / Like a murmurin’ brook / Curvin’ about you.” The swooning lyrics are supported by a dazzling orchestral composition conducted by Drew Erikson, marking the first time Mitski has worked with a full orchestra. The symphony merges seamlessly with the country elements to capture a dreamy atmosphere of swelling violins and warm flute notes. All the while, Mitski is still able to effortlessly flip between aching melancholy and joyous triumph without disrupting the flow of the record’s narrative. For example, “I Don’t Like My Mind” is a portrait of a workaholic plagued by neurosis, relatable in its claustrophobic sense of desperation. Throughout The Land, it is increasingly clear that Mitski has moved on from Laurel Hell and the expectations of commercialism; she is still alone and struggling, but no longer trapped in a world of catchy, hollow one-liners sleekly encased in marketable synth.

Though Mitski’s previous works did not draw much inspiration from country music, the emotionally authentic songwriting she became famous for is still showcased on The Land. Her evocative, pictorial lyrics are reminiscent of her earliest albums—like the 2013 Retired From Sad, New Career in Business—but show a more sophisticated vision and cohesive production. Overall, her new thematic inspiration helped create one of the biggest artistic successes of her career. Though Mitski is often sequestered into her archetype as a forlorn singer strumming her guitar for sad women, she has once again proven that her music is more rich and complex than a 15-second TikTok clip could ever demonstrate. The land is inhospitable, but Mitski’s musical career remains fruitful.