Mitski makes unlikely comeback with stunning new album

Mitski’s seventh studio album “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We” is a curiously understated yet no less poignant entry in her discography.


Mitski introduces a refreshing, acoustic edge to her newest album, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So are We,” reprising her role as the queen of indie music. (David Lee / Flickr)

The title of Mitski’s seventh studio album, “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We,” suggests a fatalism even more intense than her most revered work, so it comes as quite a surprise that it is perhaps the most unostentatious record in her discography. There are few fireworks displays here; the music is quieter, more tuned into the world around it. She settles upon a sonic serenity and lushness absent from her past records.

It’s a miracle that “The Land Is Inhospitable” has even arrived. Mitski, 11 years into her career as “the [United States’] best young songwriter” according to The Guardian, has been documenting her complex relationships with herself, others and fame with a cultural specificity unrivaled by her peers.

The godlike stature Mitski’s attained in some circles has left her conflicted over her career. She announced her intention to quit music in 2019 before changing her mind because of her love for the art form. These tensions between art and commerce, person and artist, and needing an outlet to express while maintaining privacy have always informed her artistry. That is no different this time around.

“The Land Is Inhospitable” arrives on the heels of a renegotiated label contract, abandoning the ’80s synth-pop sheen that made last year’s “Laurel Hell” an unexpected commercial detour in her discography. Several kinds of emotional agony, usual suspects in Mitski’s musical world, do pop up here –– see the song “I Don’t Like My Mind” –– but the cast of characters surrounding her is richer than before. A Mitski record is normally a solitary affair with an inward focus, but “The Land Is Inhospitable” has a renewed focus on the “land” around her.

The orchestral arrangements of “The Land Is Inhospitable,” aided by longtime collaborator and producer Patrick Hyland, exist light-years away from the frenetic, heavily distorted, punk-tinged indie rock that Mitski made a name for herself with on albums like “Bury Me At Makeout Creek” and “Puberty 2.”

This album’s sound feels closest in spirit to her 2013 record “Retired from Sad, New Career in Business,” which she made as a student at SUNY Purchase.

It feels like an intentional choice to abandon the claustrophobia that has historically made her music most marketable to the masses of fans who have projected their feelings onto her.

The inclusion of a seventeen-person choir alongside grand swells of orchestral instrumentation and scores of cicadas chirping and hounds barking give “The Land Is Inhospitable” an intimate sense of place and an immersive cinematic presentation.

Her world-building abilities are on full display here like never before — take the album’s lead single and opener, “Bug Like an Angel.” She nearly whispers “As I got older, I learned I’m a drinker / Sometimes, a drink feels like family” over gentle strums of acoustic guitar before the backing choir slithers behind her to sing the word “family” at a practically deafening volume. Mitski’s most anxious thoughts have typically been experienced in her music alone, but having witnesses to them here proffers new depths of dark humor and melancholy.

The album dabbles in ethereal alt-folk and country sounds that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mazzy Star record. Mid-album highlight “My Love Mine All Mine” sees Mitski adopt a dreamlike lounge singer disposition fit for a David Lynch film. The lush instrumentation that adorns several songs here gives her room to luxuriate, which she hasn’t always afforded herself. It’s an appropriate change of pace.

More than ever, Mitski’s lyrics reflect the bliss she experiences as a direct result of deeply cherishing all that she loves. The single “Heaven,” perhaps the most purely lovesick song she’s ever written, takes listeners to that very place. “Now I bend like a willow / Thinkin’ of you / Like a murmurin’ brook / Curvin’ about you / As I sip on the rest of the coffee you left / A kiss left of you” immediately takes its place in the crowded pantheon of Mitski’s most poetic lyrics; she’s never sounded quite so unburdened.

Even “Star,” which lyrically concerns lost love — typically an intensely isolating phenomenon in Mitski’s musical world — finds her expressing cosmic gratitude for what once was. When she asks “Isn’t that worth holdin’ on?” of this former love, she sounds hopeful, like she has assured herself that she will be sustained, not smothered, by the memories she carries. This feels like a revelation coming from someone who sang “When you go, take this heart / I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you” just a few years ago on “Happy.”

The album’s closer “I Love Me After You” hearkens back to 2016’s “A Burning Hill,” where Mitski resolved to “love some littler things.” On the former, her mordantly funny depiction of self-care turns into a bold proclamation of liberation: “Stride through the house naked / Don’t even care that the / Curtains are open / Let the darkness see me.” As she croons “I’m king of all the land,” a wave of distortion carries her off into the sunset, providing a fitting conclusion to what she’s called her “most American album.” What could be more American than laying claim to a land that is inhospitable, than getting to the top only to survey the wreckage it took to get there?   

And so, sure, the land is inhospitable and so are we. But Mitski challenges listeners to cast this inhospitality off themselves and, by extension, the land around them. “The best thing I ever did in my life was to love people,” she said in a press release for the album. Maybe the U.S. is doomed, but if its people move through the land with love in their hearts, then hospitality must be sure to follow.

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