Mitski is coming to 3Arena on Saturday, May 4 2024.
Sometimes, Mitski says, it feels like life would be easier without hope, or a soul, or love. But when she closes her eyes and thinks about what’s truly hers, what can’t be repossessed or demolished, she sees love. “The best thing I ever did in my life was to love people,” Mitski says. “I wish I could leave behind all the love I have, after I die, so that I can shine all this goodness, all this good love that I’ve created onto other people.” She hopes her newest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, will continue to shine that love long after she’s gone. Listening to it, that’s precisely how it feels: like a love that’s haunting the land.
Love is always radical, which means that it always disrupts, which means that it always takes work to receive it. This land, which already feels inhospitable to so many of its inhabitants, is about to feel hopelessly torn and tossed again – at times, devoid of love. This album offers the anodyne. “This is my most American album,” Mitski says about her seventh record, and the music feels like a profound act of witnessing this country, in all of its private sorrows and painful contradictions. But “maybe it’s beyond witnessing,” she says. At times, it feels like the album is an exercise in negative capability – a fearless embodiment and absorption of the pain of other bodies. When I ask her what the album would look like, if it were a person, she says it would be someone middle-aged and exhausted, perhaps someone having a midlife crisis. But through the daily indignity and exhaustion, something enormous and ecstatic is calling out. In this album, which is sonically Mitski’s most expansive, epic, and wise, the songs seem to be introducing wounds and then actively healing them. Here, love is time-traveling to bless our tender days, like the light from a distant star.
Mitski wrote these songs in little bursts over the past few years, and they feel informed by moments of noticing – noticing a sound that’s out of place, a building that groans in decay, an opinion that splits a room, a feeling that can’t be contained in a body. It was recorded at both the Bomb Shelter in East Nashville and the Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles. The album incorporates an orchestra arranged and conducted by Drew Erickson, as well as a full choir of 17 people - 12 in LA and 5 in Nashville - arranged by Mitski. And for the first time, it felt important to Mitski to have a band recording live together in the studio, to create this new sublime sound. Working with her longtime producer Patrick Hyland, the album has a wide-range of references, from Ennio Morricone’s bombastic Spaghetti Western scores to Carter Burwell’s tundra-filling Fargo soundtrack, from the breathy intimacy of Arthur Russell to the strident aliveness of Scott Walker or Igor Stravinsky, from the jubilation of Caetano Veloso to the twangy longing of Faron Young.
From the first track, the album introduces and then heals a wound. “Bug Like an Angel” finds the divine in the ordinary, in the boozy drowning of sorrow. The narrator sings from the strange comfort of rock bottom: “sometimes a drink feels like family.” And suddenly, that choir of angels sings: “FAMILY!” This first track introduces a cosmic paradox: “The wrath of the devil was also given him by God.” This is an album in which dark and light exist in the same gesture, the same broken prayer. Like the Buddha inviting the demon Mara in for tea, The Land embraces brutal, daily pain — the necessary toll of transcendent love.
In “Buffalo Replaced,” the wail of a freight train replaces the vibrations of the long-gone stampeding buffalo. Here, hope itself is personified, anthropomorphized into a sleeping creature, and our narrator wonders if life would be easier without her. But then, as though in response, “Heaven” offers a beautiful moment of passion, preserved like a fossil in time even though the “dark awaits us all around the corner.” This oasis is aggressively interrupted by “I Don’t Like My Mind,” a song from the perspective of someone in extraordinary pain. They are begging to keep their job, while actively keeping terrible traumatic memories at bay. Without their employment, these memories might take over, consuming them as relentlessly as the cake that they ate one “inconvenient Christmas.” The toggling between hope and despair in these four songs is masterful — the good, the bad, and the ugly in America’s backyard.
This mythology continues to deepen with the stunning “The Deal,” in which someone is so burdened by their soul that they beg for it to be taken from them. Soon, the singer’s soul is revealed to be a bird perched on a streetlight. In a coup of songwriting, the narration does not switch into the newly-souled bird’s voice. No, we stay with the soulless “I.” The bird calls down: “You’re a cage without me. / Your pain is eased but you’ll never be free.” This song reinforces the album’s tug-of-war between the intoxication of love and the pain of isolation. Close on its heels is “My Love Mine All Mine,” an instant classic and the beating heart of the album, wherein the singer imagines their love shining down on the earth from the moon, long after the speaker is gone.
“It’s just witness-less me,” she sings on “The Frost,” which suddenly takes us from the anticipation of loss right into the aching loneliness of it. On the subject of witnessing, Mitski says: “I’ve always been the person on the outside watching. And I’ve also done that with myself... outside of myself, witnessing myself, watching myself.” She thinks that she might have adopted this habit as a condition of being a woman of color, and that it’s led to the occasional post-apocalyptic fantasy of being the only person left in the world. We talked about Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which a man is profoundly alone, with only an archive of old tapes to keep him company. He remembers the seismic event of an old sexual encounter, but now it’s: “Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.” The Land repeatedly offers that same hypothesis. Without love, is there anyone here?
After the alien lift of “Star” comes the album’s showdown. “I’m Your Man” feels as inevitable, bloody, and haunting as a Sergio Leone duel scene. The “Man” in the title isn’t some fella proclaiming devotion, Mitski says, but rather the man inside her head, the haunting patriarch who treats her like a dog and can destroy her at whim. Despite his confidence and swagger, he is tracked down by a pack of hounds — who have unionized in the name of catharsis. After this violent reckoning, a Fowler’s Toad calls out in what sounds like a human scream. The night settles into silence. The earth might be uninhabited. We glide into the liberating closer, “I Love Me After You,” in which someone is truly alone but truly free. King of all the land.
“I don’t have a self,” Mitski observes. “I have a million selves, and they’re all me, and I inhabit them, and they all live inside me.” Loving all of these selves does not yield the easy burst of a pop song. It’s the “long, complex, deep love, that you can never get to the end of, that’s always evolving, like a person. And there’s just no end to it. It feels like space travel.” The album is full of the ache of the grown- up, seemingly mundane heartbreaks and joys that are often unsung but feel enormous. It’s a tiny epic. From the bottom of a glass, to a driveway slushy with memory and snow, to a freight train barreling through the Midwest, and all the way to the moon, it feels like everything, and everyone, is crying out, screaming in pain, arching towards love.
Maybe this is what our best artists do: take a spaceship into the furthest reaches of pain, in order to bring back the elixir that we already had inside us. The unknowable known of love. “You have to go to both worlds all the time,” Mitski says, by which she means the mysterious world of making and the brutal world of living. This album is an act of hyperlocal space travel. Love is that inhospitable land, beckoning us and then rejecting us. To love this place — this earth, this America, this body — takes active work. It might be impossible. The best things are.