Graphic: Andrew Mazariegos/The Olaf Messenger
Indie rock lost one of its most beloved poets to the new soundscape of Southern gothic ballads in “The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We.” Lyrical legend Mitski released this brief countryside project on Sept. 15. Despite the change in aesthetic, this album is Mitski’s best work so far.
While the intense grunge of Mitski’s “Puberty 2” and “Bury Me at Makeout Creek” drew fans in, this new album not only diverges from the old ways but completely evolves into an expanded and interconnected form of storytelling. Mitski’s story starts over a decade ago with a university project titled “Lush.” Her first songs are guttural, sickening, and confused. While her old songs explore questions in a search for answers, “The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We” accepts defeat, victory, and death.
This new world is big, yet incredibly intimate. On one hand, songs like “When Memories Snow” and “Buffalo Replaced” take the listener from a snowy driveway to a hopeless prairie barn. This “inhospitable land” swallows topics as big as alcoholism, lost friends, and love after death. On the other hand, the entire album flows like a Western cowboy saloon stage performance. Songs like “Heaven” and “The Frost” were intended to be background music for a hay-covered-floor bar.
This clear cut away from electric guitar and synth-pop opens the door for Mitski’s transformed lyrics. The simple instrumentals and background church choir bolster the most plain yet devastating lyrics Mitski has ever released. These lyrics somehow master being both beach reads and worthy of literary analysis.
The collapsing climax of the album, “The Deal,” grapples with the burden of having a soul. Mitski begs the devil to take the pain away, yet her soul, “a bird perched upon a streetlight,” warns that “you’re a cage without me,” potentially referencing American poet Maya Angelou’s book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” The song grumbles into a storming heartbeat accompanied by strings and the words “there’s a deal that I made.” Mitski finally accepts that she must feel pain and sorrow to also feel joy.
In the overflowing heart of the album, “My Love Mine All Mine,” Mitski acknowledges that “nothing in this world belongs to me,” except love. In her “behind the song” video, the singer explains that “to love is the best thing I ever did.” She asks that “when it comes to be my turn” that the moon shines her heart down for her lover. At least her love can stay in the world even after death.
These new songs even go so far as to reference her own past work. The pair lead singles “Star” and “Heaven” draw back to the song “Remember My Name,” which asks, “just how many stars will I need to hang around me to finally call it heaven?” It’s finally revealed that the “stars” are “leftover light” from a long-dead love millions of lightyears away. The “heaven” is “a kiss left of you” on a cup of coffee.
Mitski’s writing capabilities in “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” certainly exceed all of her past work. While the songs are short and sometimes terse, all of the melodies come together to form one cohesive depiction of the sad country girl longing for something more. The best part is that the listener feels so drawn in, they can practically feel the cowboy boots and dread touching their skin. This is Mitski’s reigning power throughout all of these years: the ability to make the listener feel new feelings they have never felt before.
Mitski’s new world comes to a close with “I Love Me After You” in which she declares herself “king of all the land.” As the final feeling of Southern sadness comes to a close, Mitski confronts the listener with a question: are you king of this “inhospitable land,” too?
5 out of 5 Big Oles