Mitski is nothing if not a viscerally enigmatic American poet. On stage, her venereal movements evoke a character that is unlike Mitski herself: soft–spoken and impenetrable. Slated to retire after Be the Cowboy, she surprised fans with her 2022 album Laurel Hell, as well as several songs for soundtracks. But her new record could be the first time she’s been making music for her own sake in a while: “I renegotiated my contract with my label, and decided to keep making records. Thank you so much for your patience and support while I found my way here. I love you!” she wrote to fans in a newsletter.
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, the singer’s seventh record, is an anthology of both old and new work, recorded in a bomb shelter in East Nashville, Tenn., and the Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles. Here, Mitski goes for orchestral drama, far removed from the synthesizers of her recent albums. Lush instrumentation conducted by Drew Erickson—who’s channeled old Hollywood scores for Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty—coupled with 17–person choral arrangements recalls an idealized vision of Americana.
Opening the album, lead single “Bug like an Angel” sets the tone, giving Mitski fans a taste of what’s to come: lyrics stocked with sylvan imagery, cosmic injustice, and sardonic wisecracks. A bug stuck to the bottom of the glass, lifted up, looks like an angel, and is at the mercy of a protagonist who may or may not be Mitski herself. Juxtaposed with the upbeat guitar strumming, she sings, “Sometimes a drink feels like family,” and a hidden choir abruptly echoes “family” back to her. Mitski’s chord progressions repeat, as does addiction. “Addiction is a cycle and I wanted to show that musically,” she said. She sings of fatal mistakes, and the cosmic bearing of them, such as “When I’m bent over / Wishin' it was over.”
Born and bred of nature, The Land is stocked to the brim of allegories and fables, rather free of any 21st–century allusions, as if written in biblical times, or in an apocalyptic after—after the storm, after climate change ravages the world. If it sounds church–y, that’s because that was Mitski’s intention: the end, when the protagonist deals with the throes of rock bottom, is religious retribution.
In “Buffalo Replaced,” it’s clear that she deals with burdensome thoughts, as heavy as if the bison themselves are ruminating in her brain. Mitski fears herself: “I have a hope and though she’s blind with no name / She shits where she’s supposed to, feeds herself while I’m away.” It’s an acknowledgment of the double–edged sword her hope, and ultimately, disappointment, has cost her. For all the interpretations that may arise from this record, one thing is for sure, and it’s that Mitski had a Thoreau–style reckoning in nature, deriving some of her most poetic lyrics, ever. “Heaven” employs such imagery: “Now I bend like a willow thinking of you / like a murmuring brook curving about you.”
Sonically departed from the rest of her discography, violins, violas, organ, piano, and woodwinds shape the album’s atmosphere. The instrumentation evokes Western front imagery, full of yearning for the expanse of the land. Mitski has grappled with the West and reversed Orientalism throughout her discography—offering her view, as a Japanese and American woman, of an oppressively white landscape. From “Your Best American Girl” to the entirety of Be the Cowboy, Mitski returns to this imagery of an archetypal Western front. The pedal steel guitar glimmers throughout the album, classically associated with American country music and its accompanying injury: the heroic gun–slinging, horse–riding cowboys in the freedom land. The pedal steel originated from Hawaii, and like the state itself, was forcibly taken by America. Mitski in turn asks her audience, what does it mean to be American?
The record is also deviously funny. In “I Don’t Like My Mind,” Mitski is explicitly relatable: she drowns out intrusive thoughts with music, she continues to be working (for the knife), and she binge eats cake during Christmas. Then, in a surprising switch–up, she begs, “so please don’t take / take my job from me.” A staunch critic of the music industry throughout the years, this record brings back Mitski’s old stances and revitalizes them, all while the haunting modulations in her voice contradict the folk lullaby playing in the background.
The Land also stands out for its cohesiveness, and the interweaving of the songs throughout. In the battle song “When Memories Snow,” Mitski sings, “When memories snow / and cover up the driveway / I shovel all those memories.” It acts as a call to another song, “The Frost,” in which the snow has left, and all that is left is frost. A vast landscape that was covered in life and love is barren, yet she has remained. Many of the songs are bittersweet lullabies, but “The Frost” takes the Christmas cake for most forlorn.
The final stretch of the album can be categorized as the end—the end of a relationship which is akin to the implosion of a planet. “Star,” deals with the lingering feelings that continue to burn, terrorizing yet comforting. “I’m Your Man,” tackles a tumultuous relationship with self–deprecation. “So when you leave me, I should die / I deserve it, don’t I?” Mitski is prophesying the inevitable breakup, in which her partner finds out her true nature—the fear of being an intrinsically bad person is proven right. “You believed me like a God / I betray you like a man.” In the background, a choir retrieves the onlooker at the gates of hell, with Cerberus–like dogs barking, and of course screaming, the classic Mitski staple, in the background.
This is Mitski in the zone, where microcosmic alienation in relationships reflects her larger societal position, where her body mirrors the world, and the love is the land. Hippocrates said that Asian people reflected stagnance in their countries: “a monotonous sameness.” But “stagnant” is one word that does not come to mind when listening to Mitski. It’s not her job to subvert this narrative, but her work simply does by way of its existence. Mitski reclaims the uninhabitable in “I Love Me After You.” She is in control of herself finally, emphatically exclaiming at the end, “I’m king of all the land.”