Album of the Week | Mitski: The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We

On her stirring and orchestral seventh album, Mitski blazes a glorious new trail and sounds freer than ever

Music Reviews Mitski
Album of the Week | Mitski: The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We

Mitski has been working on her own time lately. As 2021 drew to a close, the enigmatic artist emerged from a hiatus from public life, diving headfirst into a heavy press cycle of features and interviews to promote her sixth album, the austere and alienated Laurel Hell. In both the songwriting and in public spheres, she expounded on her feelings of discontent with her art and the way the world consumed it. Its lead single “Working for the Knife” pointed directly at her frustration with lines like “I used to think I’d be done by 20 / Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same” and “I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right, but I just chose wrong.” Its video, filmed within Albany, NY’s brutalist monument and performance space The Egg, ended with her performing an exaggerated, clownish dance set to no music, just applause, her own exasperated panting and the bashing of her fists on the stage. The message was clear: Mitski’s return would not be uncomplicated. After wrapping up a massive tour to support Laurel Hell, Mitski retreated again, but not for long.

To the surprise of anyone who bought into the idea that Laurel Hell would be the last we heard from Mitski for some time, she sent a newsletter out in late July and, in an accompanying, strangely simple video, Mitski waved to the camera and informed us that new music was imminent—and that her new album was called The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We. The wordy title suggests a record exploring a blighted land, and the ugliness we wrought upon it—but this is not Mitski’s climate change album.

Instead, she has given us her most challenging work to date; an album that finds her staring in the mirror, examining how much she struggles to find space for all the love and hope her spirit carries. Its bounty is a burden. While not explicitly told from her own point of view, the surreal narrative of “The Deal” explores the lengths she’ll go to get rid of her soul, hoping it’s easier to go on without it. “I want someone to take this soul / I can’t bear to keep it” she pleads. A thundering bass and violin arrangement swells as she makes this choice, underscoring the gravity of what she’s done before receding back to soft guitar strums. She spots a bird who, to her surprise, speaks. The bird, like the Devil explaining this Faustian bargain, informs that even without the weight of her soul, there is no freedom—“you’re a cage without me.”

Mitski’s seventh album feels, all at once, like a much-needed course correction away from 80s style synths growing staler with each use and like her lowest stakes release yet. The towering expectation and deafening hype that surrounded Laurel Hell seemed to have died down, leaving her free to exhale. The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We finds Mitski breaking new ground, building transcendent songs with the accompaniment of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, a string section and an entire 17-person choir. These resplendent pieces fit together to form fascinating, delicately arranged songs.

Take “Heaven,” an elegant waltz that sounds as though she’s pulled it from a lost compilation of country ballads, just waiting for its chance to be tossed on the turntable. String bends and soft, patient drums float alongside Mitski as she gives one of the album’s most powerful vocal performances.

The belting she does here stands in stark contrast to the soft murmur she provides on “Bug Like an Angel”—the album’s first single, which is most notable for its use of the choir. The voices, as angelic as the poor bug swimming in the narrator’s glass, burst forth to interrupt the dulcet guitar strums and Mitski’s forlorn storytelling. Its final lines—”I try to remember / The wrath of the devil /Was also given him by God”—are a heavy reminder that we are liable to blame our problems on the world despite our own free will. “Bug” is also one of a handful of moments that nod at a divinity within nature.

The most brazen of these comes on the feral, disquieting showstopper “I’m Your Man.” Some of Mitski’s most masterful songwriting, “I’m Your Man” is a complex examination of the dynamics between people who are in love. Borrowing themes from “The Only Heartbreaker,” Mitski apologizes to someone who loves her, believing herself unworthy—“I’m sorry I’m the one you love / No one will ever love me like you again / So when you leave me I should die / I deserve it, don’t I.” She resolves that, when she is finally no longer loved, she should throw herself to the cruelty of nature, to the hounds. The already eerie score builds, and the choir sings a song of absolution; snarling dogs fill the space, joined quickly by crickets and a frog whose croak mimics a human scream. It’s as though Mitski has held a microphone up to the sounds of animals that can sense a calamity that is mere moments away and begin falling into chaos. Within this stunning song is the idea that Mitski sees herself as existing to give and receive love, that she can’t picture a world without this dynamic or her part within it. She has always written about affection as a potent substance, but she’s never centered it as clearly as on The Land. On “My Love Mine All Mine,” it’s the only thing in the world she knows belongs to her.

One of the most striking things about The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We is how it succeeds while sacrificing the reliance on melody that undergirds some of Mitski’s best songwriting thus far. There is nothing as electric as “Nobody,” nothing as distorted as “Your Best American Girl.” And yet, this is her finest collection of songs. There’s a beauty to her pastoral vignettes that resonates without the need for traditional pop hooks. It’s not music that’s suited to arenas, and maybe that’s the point. The album ends with a proclamation of her own power and agency. “I’m king of all the land,” she sings on “I Love Me After You,” before unleashing heavy drums and guitar fuzz. Mitski can do anything she wants to now, and we’re better off under her reign.

Eric Bennett is a music critic in Philadelphia with bylines at Pitchfork, Post-Trash and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter @violet_by_hole.

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