Mitski's 'The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We' Review: Love At Life's Edge
The songwriter’s most beautiful record yet is about love, but only as a foil to pain and personal agony.
In 2018, Mitski lamented about being alone forever. “Nobody,” the synth-pop megahit from her mainstream catapulting record Be The Cowboy, became the anthem for girls who felt unlovable everywhere. Whether for good or for bad, it crystallized the kind of music Mitski made in the minds of the public: sad, softly tormented bops that loved to wallow without coming up for air.
Five years later and not so much has changed. On her seventh studio album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, she is perhaps more alone than ever, roaming empty roads at midnight, having witness-less breakdowns, or finding salvation in the sole other living creature around her: the bug stuck at the bottom of her beer glass. At times it feels like it could be one of her bleakest records yet — were it not for a shift in style that also makes it one of her most sonically beautiful.
Mitski left New York City for Nashville in 2019 and it’s clear the move reinvigorated her creatively. The Land is her second full-length record in 19 months, a significant increase in her output. And it’s arrived with a substantial, if subtle, pivot in sound. Ditching the synth-pop she’s clutched onto for her last few releases, The Land’s 11 songs flutter and vibrate in the analog: warm acoustic instrumentation, country-streaked twang, and smokey folk blues.
The singer recorded the album live with a full orchestra and 17-person choir, all together in a studio. And you can hear the scratchy textures in the recordings, the faint aura of an echo in her voice as she sings. It also means the pain in her voice is also magnified in 3D, and there’s plenty of it on the album.
She’s said that the record is about love, and it is. But only as a foil to a lot of pain and personal agony. On The Land, those two emotions are entwined, each heightening the extremity of the other: intense pain begets intense love and hope. On “Bug Like An Angel,” her opening ode to the rock-bottom alcoholic ends in a searing gesture of absolution: “When I’m bent over wishing it was over, making all variety of vows I’ll never keep/ I try to remember the wrath of the devil was also given him by God” — a religious act of love even if it’s foolhardy in the moment.
The intensity only continues on “I Don’t Like My Mind,” where she belts about the agony of being left alone with her thoughts, “With all its opinions about the things that I’ve done,” she sings. So she gorges a whole cake at Christmas and begs to keep her job — her ultimate love and lifeline. Despite being one of the darkest songs on the album, it’s also one of its most gorgeous, rippling with guitars and twinkling piano, and her voice that chills like a forceful mountain breeze.
There are moments where love is a more pleasant contemplation, like on “My Love Is Mine All Mine,” the soft pulsing heart of the record. A languid, smoked out ballad, Mitski croons under the white light of a full moon, marveling at her ability to love as life’s biggest miracle. “Nothing in the world is mine for free but my love, mine all mine all mine,” she sings with wonder. It is meltingly romantic and just a little sad, but maybe for Mitski’s standards this is the closest we’ll ever get to a straightforward love song. Fittingly it’s one sung to herself.
Because the one great constant of all on The Land is that Mitski is still alone, maybe even more alone than ever, “witness-less me,” she sighs on “The Frost.” That solitude is nearly supernatural on “The Deal,” a strummed bard-like epic that touches the demonic on the chorus. A midnight stroll to sell her soul brings an encounter with a single bird perched on a street light, the sole witness to her human turmoil. It speaks to her in deep, IMAX level tones, “Your pain is eased but you’ll never be free/ For now I’m taken, the night has me.”
In the decade Mitski’s been making heart-rendering, truly emotionally precipitous music there’s been nothing like The Land. The album feels like an outlier in extremity, even against a discography filled with lyrics about throwing yourself off the balcony. Its songs are dramatically intense, almost too intense to be listened to again for fear of it cracking something inside you. It’s maybe something in the way they’re written, broken from standard song format so they unspool like raw, unedited thoughts. It’s maybe because these songs go beyond relatability and into some territory that only Mitski knows and can navigate, and we can only follow in her wake hoping to find something to cling on.
But then you get a song like “Star,” a song that clutches on hope and love so hard it transcends the length of the universe. “Keep a leftover light burning so you can keep looking up/ Isn’t that worth holding on?” she asks. This must be the real reason we continue to come back to Mitski. To know that even when someone is at life’s edge, there’s still a way back.