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.
“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.