The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We finds Mitski once again chiseling her trademark, undisguised approach to songwriting and turning it into a surprisingly tender and impressively resonating body of work.
Let’s begin this review with a (not so) hot take: It’s a bit disheartening how Mitski keeps being reduced to sad girl music around online discussions. Granted, there is nothing wrong with the label nor being referred to as such – the fact of the matter is that there is an audience and value to said label. Even I occasionally go out of my way to look for artists that fall under it. Yes, it helps broaden the reach for these kinds of artists, but it can also be a disservice to their full scope of talent and musical vision they offer. Such is the case with Mitski, housing a prolific run of records that showcases the gamut of her compositional chops, from her humble beginnings delving into chamber pop in the form of Lush and the throttling impulsiveness of Puberty 2, to the glistening sounds of left-field synthpop found on Laurel Hell.
Now we have The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, an album that I think sees Mitski closer to piercing a stake at the sad girl music label right through its morose heart. Once again, however, she proves to be wiser than many and takes the record as an opportunity to continue asserting her standing as an indie powerhouse, this time with grace and a level-headedness as natural as her previous volatile outputs. Mitski, then, stares right in the face of the label not with disdain nor with the aim to take complete ownership, but of acceptance and a willingness to coexist with it.
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We can be considered a departure of sorts for Mitski, favoring a more organic and nuanced approach to her songwriting as a means to build a record that prioritizes reflection and intimacy above anything else. As with all of her albums, nothing is in vain here – it was only a matter of time before the Japanese American singer-songwriter retreated to a ruminative sonic space after an exhausting bout of identity crises, and of struggling with the exploitative nature of the music industry and with the toxic parasocial relationships between fans and artists of her stature. Still, growth is an inevitable outcome for life’s constant challenges such as these, and Mitski is very much aware of this. Taken from an NPR interview, she comments:
‘I was at a point where everything around me felt completely dark. And I realized that if there’s no light around me, it’s kind of up to me to be the light for myself. And I think that light is love for me as long as I just hold on to my love for people, for the world, for getting to live. Then my world will have love in it.‘
Look no further than “My Love Mine All Mine” to get a gist of this new record; a contemplative yet tender country ballad where Mitski affirms her love for herself and others as the only thing that remains true in a world rife with chaos. There’s an antique quality to both the production and her cadence that captures a nostalgic warmth immediately captivating, with flourishes of piano and pedal steel guitars adding a veil of elegance to the song in such a pristine manner. These same sentiments are applied to her more experimental musings such as “Star”, one of the album’s singles. Waves of synth undulate throughout its entirety, presenting a shimmering, powerful track about comparing the death of stars to the longevity of appreciating someone dearly.
American idiosyncrasy also plays a big role in The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. Mitski not only displays a solid amalgam of Americana, country, folk, and heartland rock, but she also brings to fruition vivid imageries and references of it through her uniquely enigmatic yet striking lyrics. “Buffalo Replaced” would be the most obvious example with its hypnotic, hefty guitar riff that precisely resembles a buffalo stampede, unraveling some of her most cryptic lyrics yet that allude to the continuing overlap between nature and industrialization. “Bug Like an Angel”, meanwhile, addresses the repercussions of alcoholism through singer-songwriter reveries and backing chorals that harken back to American gospel music in the most stripped-back yet poignant fashion.
“The Deal” is truly a journey of its own, though. A concept track that utilizes the selling your soul to the devil trope, Mitski commits to an effortless narrative styling to emphasize the burden of her soul she feels she carries, essentially wanting to remove herself from the shackles of being human. Making such a decision, of course, strips away her abilities and needs to love and create, a conundrum that the song (and the album to a certain extent) constantly ponders on. The music that accompanies it further illustrates this dichotomy superbly, with folk accompaniments that teeters between sounding whimsical and sounding menacing, only for all to be suffocated by a disorienting tempo switch and heavily-compressed percussions signaling that the deal in fact did not go as expected.
Songs like “I Don’t Like My Mind” and “When Memories Snow” will surely find longtime fans feeling right at home whilst showcasing Mitski at her most straightforward and vocally rich. Both lyrically engage in the self-destructive cycles of avoiding one’s own thoughts and the eventual face-off with them, with the former returning to the vibrantly layered country twang while the latter is coated with a disorienting orchestration that is absolutely visceral. “I’m Your Man” is reminiscent of Puberty 2, only this time the track is packaged as a harrowing lo-fi cut rather than as the alt rock ragers off of it. Religious metaphors give way the feeling of inadequacy in a relationship, ones that can certainly be extrapolated to the pressures Mitski face when coming across her audience and the high pedestals they put her in. She acknowledges that she’s not perfect and capable of hurt, exemplified by these heartbreaking lines: ‘you believe me like a god, I destroy you like I am‘.
For all the introspection and simmering desperation laid out on the album, there’s “Heaven” to welcome you as a lovely repose to facing reality. With an inviting vintage balladry that exudes both affection and glamour, the track finds comfort in the act of cherishing as it serves as a reminder of the love Mitski had given and experienced, regardless of the brevity of time or the conflicts that might have arisen with her partner in question. It’s this exercise of being present that keeps her afloat through tumultuous seas, one that resoundingly characterizes the overall record and in turn highlights once more her mastery of crafting songs with tremendous care.
There’s a herculean strength to tread in a merciless world while also admitting one’s own faults in contributing to it – after all, it’s part of the human experience, for better or worse. To be convinced otherwise is sheer complacency – a path that Mitski confidently refuses to take. The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We is that next step towards self-acceptance and the willingness to move forward despite of life’s hindrances and one’s own shortcomings. This mindset is further broadened through its songs that feel necessarily grounded, but are never afraid of reaching high above the stars. Call it a new era, a creative peak, or just a great 2023 release, what remains true here is that Mitski found complete solace on this record and its music speak volumes of such proportions that it’s simply impossible for you not to be impacted by its wisdom.