The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We reads as a dramatic title, but stress the second to last word and you hear the beginning of a question. The songs on Mitski’s seventh album sound like that, too: bold yet tentative, elegant yet knotty, drawing you in with their organic beauty until you realize you’re stranded in the dark alongside her, wondering what awaits us. The follow-up to 2022’s Laurel Hell is both her warmest and most challenging effort to date – not even handing out the questions to you, let alone any answers, but moving with multitudes – and so the first to be able to vividly capture the ostensible contradictions and chilling intricacies that have long been a mark of her songwriting. Think of ‘Heat Lightning’, an unconventional highlight off her previous record whose fluttering dissonance was resolved by an acceptance of futility, hopeful only in the act of surrender: “And there’s nothing I can do/ Not much I can change/ So I give it up to you/ I hope that’s okay.” On the new album, Mitski is equally attuned to, and devastated by, life’s inevitables, but she adjusts her gaze, no longer content to resign. It blows you away so naturally.
While inhabiting a similarly disquieting and liminal space as ‘Heat Lightning’, everything breathes so differently on The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. All sorts of things buzzing with aliveness keep her up and out through the night on ‘Buffalo Replaced’, where she finds hope – a kind, at least – “And though she’s blind with no name/ She shits where she’s supposed to, feeds herself while I’m away,” she somehow can’t do without it. On the astounding ‘The Deal’, Mitski describes a midnight walk alone that has her begging to bargain away her soul, and when she sings, “Then of course, nothing replied/ Nothing speaks to you in the night,” it sounds like capital-N nothing, personified. The music, intimate and quietly cinematic, softens as she makes her way home, until a bird reminds her of the sacrifice she almost made, what the darkness looks like without song: “Your pain is eased but you’ll never be free.” The instrumental elements that swelled carefully before dissipating then rumble back into thundering noise, with Ross McReynolds’ drums pummeling jaggedly forth; and though the singer sounds like she’s escaped the storm, she’s still haunted and weighed down by it.
Though the songs don’t quite explode or follow conventional paths the way some of her older material did, this is the least detached Mitski has sounded. Even the most dissociative songs sound incredibly alive; she frames her narratives through different angles, zooming out more than ever, but you always hear her up close. On several tracks, she complements her spare, country-leaning guitars with a 17-person choir and orchestral arrangements that evoke and cut through the unique logic of her lyricism in complex and sometimes surprising ways. ‘Bug Like an Angel’ introduces the atmosphere of the record as one of stark minimalism, with the narrator slipping into the haze of addiction: “Sometimes a drink feels like family,” she sings, and the choir suddenly twists the tenderness of the final word into something indecipherable; it’s all about punctuation. On the staggering ‘I’m Your Man’, Mitski constructs a chorus out of snarling dogs, chirping insects, and croaking frogs – real-world sounds that make the human voices sound otherworldly, ballooning like the end of a doomed and tangled relationship.
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We may not have infectious pop songs to counteract its more punishing moments, but it holds space for ones that are sweetly sentimental. The orchestral elegance of some tracks has a menacing edge, but on ‘Heaven’ it allows Mitski to lean into the softness of a love that’s full and wonderfully domestic. Her oohs mirror the bending willow and dancing storm she observes while tucked in the thought of her lover, a freedom miraculously removed from the dangers of ‘The Deal’. As a preview of the album, the track was paired with ‘Star’, in which another love is long gone but, in its own way, cosmically transcendent: “We just see it shining/ We’ve traveled very far.”
Take a step back, and the aloneness of The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, adorned as it may be, can feel overwhelming. ‘I Don’t Like My Mind’ offers a familiar portrait of toiling through solitude that calls back to Mitski’s 2021 single ‘Working for the Knife’ (“So yeah, I blast my music loud/ And I work myself to the bone”); faced with grief on the heartbreaking ‘The Frost’, she describes herself as “witness-less.” It’s not the desolate landscape that causes such pain, but the absence of something once present, or the presence of something unshared. You can hear, in a song as unexpectedly imposing as ‘When Memories Snow’, that there’s nothing more frightening than a memory, a part of you being shoved away for eternity. But just like Mitski’s music can make a beautiful thing – hope, nature, family – sound oddly cruel, it can also make a lonely thing burn brightly and beautifully. And so are we alone, really, when we let ourselves remember and be remembered like that? Are we in the dark when we let ourselves be seen so nakedly, out of love when we have it for ourselves? Are we not, while down here on earth, owed a place? And so, as Mitski sings finally on ‘Star’, “Isn’t that worth holding on?”