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Singer-songwriter Mitski brings surging energy and emotions to 'Laurel Hell'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The singer and songwriter Mitski made one of the most acclaimed albums of 2018. It was called "Be The Cowboy," and it appeared on a lot of year-end best lists. But soon after its release, Mitski announced she was done with touring and perhaps making music. Fortunately for her fans, she decided over the course of a pandemic lockdown that she wanted to make another album. This new one, her sixth, is called "Laurel Hell," and it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's album sales chart. Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's more varied than anything Mitski has yet created.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S OUR LAMP")

MITSKI: (Singing) We fought again. I ran out of the apartment. You say you love me. I believe you do. But I walk down and up and down and up and down this street 'cause you just don't like me, not like you used to.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Mitski running out of her apartment after a spat, deciding that the person she's with may love her but doesn't really like her anymore. The difference between loving and liking is, of course, a crucial distinction constantly being monitored in any relationship. On her new album, "Laurel Hell," Mitski observes and analyzes distinctions with a fine degree of subtlety, which is not to say that she's always so contemplative. On "The Only Heartbreaker," she becomes a disco queen, crooning in a cross between ABBA and Donna Summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONLY HEARTBREAKER")

MITSKI: (Singing) If you would just make one mistake, what a relief that would be. But I think for as long as we're together, I'll be the heartbreaker. I'll be the only heartbreaker. I'll be the only heartbreaker. So I'll...

TUCKER: The lyrics of "The Only Heartbreaker" state specifically a narrative strategy she pursues in a number of songs here. I'll be the bad guy in the play, she says. At a time when so much pop culture is suggesting that images of women ought to be positive ones, Mitski says, wait a minute. There are times in my life when I wasn't the good guy. I screwed up. I made mistakes and hurt people. This insistence upon emotional complexity adds a crucial unpredictability to many of her best new songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME MORE")

MITSKI: (Singing) If I keep myself at home, I won't make the same mistake that I made for 15 years. I could be a new girl. I will be a new girl. I wish that this would go away. But when I'm done singing this song, I will have to find something else to do to keep me here, something else to keep me. Here's my hand. There's the itch, but I'm not supposed to scratch. I need you to love me more, love me more, love me more. Love enough to fill me up, fill me up, fill me full up. I need you to love...

TUCKER: I love the surging energy of that song, "Love Me More," and I love this line in it. When I'm done singing this song, I'll have to find something else to do to keep me here. Mitski dramatically expanded her fan base singing in a low, haunted voice throughout much of her previous album, "Be The Cowboy." Another key aspect of "Laurel Hell" is that her tone varies so much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD'VE BEEN ME")

MITSKI: (Singing) Well, I went through my list of friends and found I had no one to tell of this overwhelming, clean feeling, strange serenity. When I saw the girl - looked just like me - and it broke my heart the lengths you went to hold me, to get to have me - 'cause I haven't given you what you need. You wanted me but couldn't reach me. So you went into your memory, relived all the ways you still want me. I haven't given you what you need. You wanted me but couldn't reach me. I'm sorry. It should've been me.

TUCKER: From song to song, I hear the echoes of women who preceded her - the smile-though-my-heart-is-breaking croon of Diana Ross, the full-throated accusations of Dusty Springfield, the soaring bliss of Anne Murray. Then I hear Mitski herself claiming new ground like the mountain laurel of the album title, spreading herself across more and more kinds of pop music with each new song.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album from Mitski called "Laurel Hell." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed like our conversation with Quinta Brunson, creator and star of the series "Abbott Elementary," or with journalist Erich Schwartzel about how Hollywood studios are tailoring their films to avoid offending the government of China so they can tap the Chinese market, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: SLOW")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering help from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: SLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.