As Mitski reflects on risks taken and lessons learned, her ambivalences are refined. A disco march laced with hearty piano chords and blippy synthesizers carries her through “Stay Soft” as she advises “Open your heart / Like the gates of hell”, then declares “You stay soft, be beaten / Only natural to harden up.” In “The Only Heartbreaker” – the album’s only co-written track, by Mitski and Dan Wilson (who has also collaborated with Adele, Taylor Swift and the Chicks) – the kind of upbeat, pulsating neo-1980s production where the Weeknd plays the last prefers time pumps on as she promises to take on all the blame for a failing relationship. “I apologize, forgive me,” she sings as the chord progression rises; does it uplift her or drown her?
Throughout “Laurel Hell”, Mitski, now 31, misses and rejects her youthful naivety. In ‘Working for the Knife’ she struggles to pull herself out of a creative block, over lingering synthesizer sounds, a trudging beat and fits of spaghetti western guitar: ‘I always thought the choice was mine’, she sings, ‘And I was right, but I just chose the wrong one.”
In the stark “Everyone,” her voice soars above an impassive, tapping drum-machine beat and persistently repetitive synthesizer notes, as Mitski admits she defied everyone’s advice. Instead, ‘I opened my arms wide to the dark/I said take whatever you want’, only to find out later that she can’t escape. The same desperation engulfs “Heat Lightning,” with thumping guitars and muffled drums supporting a desperate confession: “There’s nothing I can do, not much I can change / I give up on you, I surrender.” And in the short but telling “I Guess,” Mitski mourns the loss of a lifelong companion over blurry, twirling keyboard chords; her vocal melody wanders in and out of dissonance, as if the outside world is oblivious to her grief.
Mitski puts a full pop arsenal in ‘Love Me More’. The title is succinct and hook-ready; the song has a solid beat and solid major chords, and when the chorus arrives, the drums kick harder as cascading piano chords and shimmering synthesizers surround her like a barrage from a confetti cannon. But the confidence of the music completely belies the raw desire in the lyrics. She tries to discover the will to carry on, fights fear, wonders how everyone else will get through “another day and then another day”, and begs for someone who can “drown it, drown me”. All her musical mastery cannot avert the darkness.