As Mitski contemplates risks taken and lessons learned, her ambivalences are fine-tuned. A disco march laced with firm piano chords and blippy synthesizers carries her through “Stay Soft” as she counsels, “Open up your heart/Like the gates of hell,” then declares, “You stay soft, get beaten/Only natural to harden up.” In “The Only Heartbreaker” — the album’s one co-written song, by Mitski and Dan Wilson (who has also collaborated with Adele, Taylor Swift and the Chicks) — the kind of upbeat, pulsing neo-1980s production lately favored by the Weeknd pumps along as she promises to accept any blame for a failing relationship. “I apologize, you forgive me,” she sings while the chord progression climbs; is it elevating her or drowning her?
Throughout “Laurel Hell,” Mitski, now 31, both misses and rejects her youthful naïveté. In “Working for the Knife,” she struggles to pull herself out of a creative block, over sustained synthesizer tones, a trudging beat and gusts of spaghetti-western guitar: “I always thought the choice was mine,” she sings, “And I was right, but I just chose wrong.”
In the stark “Everyone,” her voice floats above an impassive, ticking drum-machine beat and doggedly repeating synthesizer notes, while Mitski admits that she defied everyone’s advice. Instead, “I opened my arms wide to the dark/I said take it all, whatever you want,” only to find later that she can’t escape. The same desperation suffuses “Heat Lightning,” with droning guitars and muffled drums backing a desperate confession: “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change/I give it up to you, I surrender.” And in the brief but telling “I Guess,” Mitski mourns the loss of a lifelong companion over hazy, tolling keyboard chords; her vocal melody wanders in and out of dissonance, as if the outside world is oblivious to her sorrow.
Mitski deploys a full pop arsenal in “Love Me More.” Its title is concise and hook-ready; the track has a brisk beat and sturdy major chords, and when the chorus arrives, the drums kick harder while cascading piano chords and glittery synthesizers surround her like a barrage from a confetti cannon. But the music’s confidence utterly belies the raw longing in the lyrics. She’s trying to discover the will to go on, fighting anxiety, wondering how everyone else gets through “another day to come, then another day to come,” and begging for someone who can “drown it out, drown me out.” All of her musical command can’t stave off the dark.