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American Sound, American Pain

How Mitski’s new album reframes folk music tropes

If all of your saddest, coolest, and most introspective music-loving friends have been aloof or reclusive lately, it’s most likely because they are processing and recovering from Mitski’s latest album. The artist is back and as forlorn as ever with her seventh studio release, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. This album introduces a new sound for Mitski – one that could not be more different from the 80s synthpop rhythms of her previous two LPs. 

The record, which Mitski has deemed her most American yet, certainly lives up to this descriptor – but in a way that is both layered and critical. The artist uses instrumentation and lyrical imagery distinctly associated with Americana culture to insert herself, a Japanese-American woman, into an aesthetic tradition that has jettisoned her. It is a tradition that fills her and those like her with isolation and uncertainty, something she communicates with outstanding musicianship. She positions herself as a guiding presence for other female Asian-American artists who are inserting themselves into a racially rigid alternative music scene. 

Part of what makes this album so exciting is that it is a new musical era for Mitski. For non-fans, Mitski’s discography can be meticulously broken up into pairs, with each album building on the tonal themes of the last. Her first two records were mainly intimate and haunting piano ballads. She then turned to a grungier style, primed with staticky, fuzzy guitars and intense, purposefully screamy vocals. Her most recent pair of albums were two danceable, poppy synth projects reminiscent of the 80s. All of her albums contain similar themes of lost or unrequited love, reconciling identity, and so on, but they are always developing to accommodate her new musical styles and ever changing mindset. 

The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We introduces listeners to a musical world untouched by Mitski as of yet – one of folk rock and country tunes, some of which are almost Dolly Parton or Johnny Cash-esque. She swaps electropop reverbs for a more classic sound, with instruments like plucky acoustic guitars, banjos, and snares, while keeping elements from her past works such as her signature rapturous builds. The bluegrass feel of the tracks could not be more distinctly Americana, with the sound of soft, slide guitar transporting listeners to the plains of the past. The naturalist vibes even transcend instruments, with dog barks and cricket chirps audible at the end of “I’m Your Man”. She also includes religious sound motifs, with organs and choirs in the singles “Star” and “Bug Like an Angel” respectively. 

Lyrically, The Land carries on its nostalgic and folky energy, as Mitski’s poetry recalls American literary traditions through pastoral allusions. She describes the natural American landscape in tandem with its industrial side, particularly on the track “Buffalo Replaced.” She sings: “Freight train stampedin’ through my backyard / It’ll run across the plains / Like the new buffalo replaced.” These descriptors of the unruly American West contrasted with its current state perfectly complement her musical combination of classic sounds with contemporary adjustments. She also subtly plays off of religious music, discussing heaven, God, and the devil – all common themes in traditional Americana media. “I try to remember the wrath of the devil / was also given him by God,” she sings in “Bug Like an Angel” as a way of communicating her personal relationship to the spirituality and morality associated with the American ethic. 

Literally harmonizing American sounds, spirituality, and nature, Mitski inserts herself into a musical and aesthetic history that first-generation and non-white Americans have historically been excluded from. Through instrumentation and word painting, she takes a very recognizable and very American style and flips it on its head. She maintains twangy melodies and lyrics that describe the beauty of the American landscape while pointing out the socio-political dynamics of American folk media that get ignored in its depictions. Americana-style media instead tends to opt for imagery of daring outlaws, disparaged and barbaric Indigenous communities, and American myths of defiance and heroism. The album title itself pokes fun at these tropes and stems from a joke Mitski made about spoofing state slogans to make them as literal and accurate as possible. Mitski is therefore subverting the carefully constructed idea of “Americanness” with a dash of facetiousness. 

Mitski also uses this cultural pride against itself. The beauty and divinity of lyrics supposedly representing a land of peace and acceptance are instead used to articulate feelings of isolation. She wrote a good portion of the album during the pandemic, a time in which the United States was a deeply inhospitable place for Asian-Americans. This writing process allowed her to resurrect feelings of loneliness and not belonging explored in her earlier records. Instead of describing an undying faith, Mitski’s inclusion of religious lyricism becomes deeply personal and isolating. Take “The Deal,” for instance, where she speaks of making a deal with the devil in order to exchange her soul for numbness and peace instead of a lifetime of confusion and pain. In situating herself among grandiose nationalistic themes, she is able to explore the deeply personal through lines present in all her albums in a new way. 

While she is certainly a pioneer in uplifting the powerful presence of Asian women in alternative music and its subgenres, Mitski is far from alone in this quest. There have been several female Asian-American musicians infiltrating the mainstream in recent years, all without conforming to its expectations of passivity and apoliticism. Take for instance Japanese Breakfast, the indie project fronted by Korean-American artist Michelle Zauner, who is unafraid of venturing into perverse themes over atmospheric beats. Zauner also published her memoir Crying in H Mart last year, which delved into her relationship with her Asian heritage and received great appraisal. There is also the extraordinary British songstress Rina Sawayama, who, like Mitski, is unafraid of exploring different genres. Take her debut record SAWAYAMA, which includes both nu-metal and 2000s girl-pop tracks

Each of these women is committed to challenging norms and boundaries in alternative music, all while being acutely aware of the Western, predominantly white social landscape they find themselves in. And, with The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, Mitski takes a huge leap in this mission, turning American music upside down to continue to make way for other artists like herself.