The tiny desert town of Valentine, Texas got its name after railroad workers laying tracks east from El Paso first reached it on February 14, 1882. Or maybe its namesake is John Valentine, the American expressman who supervised transit routes out west before becoming the inaugural president of Wells Fargo. Whichever the true origin story, it’s where Mitski gazed at her first dust devils on a trek across America—thinking about the whirling forces of love and commerce, how to insulate her passion for music from an extractive industry.
These heavy thoughts guided “Valentine, Texas,” a 2022 song off Laurel Hell on which Mitski cast her inner turmoil onto the natural world: observing clouds that resembled mountains, then visualizing those mountains drifting off, wishing for her burdens to dissipate like vapor. It introduced a chilly, fatalistic album that hinted at commercial pop ambition while anticipating the end of her career—a sense of doomed finality reinforced by its title, an Appalachian folk term for rhododendron thickets where wanderers die after getting stuck. But after Laurel Hell’s release, Mitski wrestled forward: “I renegotiated my contract with my label, and decided to keep making records,” she announced. Now “Valentine, Texas” appears like a guidepost along a long, winding road to the wide expanses of her seventh album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We.
Here, the alchemical imagination that turns cumuli into sierras meets fireflies that hurtle like cars and freight trains that clomp like wild cattle. Mitski conjures scenes of stark and spectral beauty, backed by sweeping orchestral arrangements written by Drew Erickson, the man behind the Old Hollywood grandeur of Father John Misty’s Chloë and the Next 20st Century and the cosmic bloom of Weyes Blood’s And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow. Gone is the claustrophobic synth-pop that landed Mitski her first Billboard hit, the tense sound of the big city; now the blinding lights of the stage seem to appear only as a memory. The result is a warmer, quieter, and more organic-sounding record that foregrounds her evocative songwriting. For the first time in a while, she sounds like she has space to breathe.
As always with Mitski’s albums, loneliness is an inescapable feature of the geography: “It’s just witness-less me,” she sings to empty space on “The Frost,” realizing that she’s alone in her grief. Her steely, vigilant stance—so prevalent on 2018’s Be the Cowboy and Laurel Hell—has softened, the starch dissolving from her personality. So even when connection seems impossible, she reaches for company. She sends love to a benevolent moon, hoping it will pass on the sentiment after she fades to dust. She pours herself another glass, because “sometimes a drink feels like family”—and over solitary, minimal guitar strums, a chorus of voices swell up behind her like a cruel hallucination: “FAMILY.”
This wilderness might seem like a godless place, but Mitski finds scattered signs of divinity: in the body of a drowned insect contaminating the last sips of Jameson, a corpse that from a different vantage looks like an angel. Or the blind, nameless mutt who “shits where she’s supposed to” and embodies hope in breathing, primal form. Strange creatures prowl throughout The Land Is Inhospitable like deities, delivering flashes of frightening insight. An oracular bird mockingly reminds Mitski of her spiritual imprisonment on “The Deal” after she bargains away her soul: “Your pain is eased but you’ll never be free.” A pack of dogs executes a kind of Biblical punishment on “I’m Your Man,” yapping as cicadas chirp, a toad shrieks, and angels harmonize from above. “I’m sorry I’m the one you love,” Mitski laments to a partner, “I’ll meet judgment by the hounds.”
These are among some of the most surreal, existential, and fascinating songs of Mitski’s career, zooming out from the exigencies of her vocation to probe the essence of the human condition and our place in the cosmos. The album still offers portraits of routine suffering, like on “I Don’t Like My Mind,” on which Mitski plays a self-loathing workaholic who only rests on “an inconvenient Christmas,” gorging herself on cake only to vomit it back up. But the broader universe seeps into even the most mundane settings, intimate moments charged with otherworldly significance. “Heaven” is a tableaux of domestic bliss in which Mitski becomes one with the environment, comparing herself to murmuring brooks and bending willows as she luxuriates in private moments with her lover: “I sip on the rest of the coffee you left/A kiss left of you/Heaven, heaven, heaven.” The misty orchestral swirls at the song’s end make it feel like we too have ascended.
From up above, what do we see? Tiny individuals hubristically trying to make something of ourselves, to push ahead, while knowing that one day the culmination of all that effort will disappear. Evidence of alienation and brutality, but also of softness and beauty. On “Star,” Mitski sings an elegy to a lost love from the other side of isolation, using the galaxy as evidence of a greater hope. The land may be inhospitable, but pan out and you’ll recognize what she does—hardship and pleasure, the choice to embrace love, and the belief that in the end it will have been worth it.
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