There is a well-known dogma amongst internet Mitski fans and vaguely indie gays alike: that, if you’re listening to her, you’re probably (in some capacity) mentally disturbed. It’s not uncommon to hear a friend say something along the lines of: “saw you listening to Mitski on Spotify–you okay?” or even “Mitski used to be my top artist, but then I went to therapy.” Consensus affirms, in other words, that Mitski’s exploration of despair in her music pushes listeners deeper into their own self-pity.
In The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, Mitski begs us to re-imagine her. A new optimism permeates her sound, and country elements such as pedal steel guitar and folk fingerpicking invoke nostalgia. “My Love Mine All Mine” is like a Patsy Cline love ballad lost in space. Here, a chorus eases loneliness; there, a soft acoustic strumming makes tracks more intimate. Mitski’s expansive acoustic and orchestral textures depart from her quintessential monophonic grunge lyricism and establish collectivity. Even more, the album accesses a feeling new to Mitski’s music: warmth.
But if Mitski has reinvented her sound, she still hasn’t overcome her despair. In fact, most songs on the album delve deeply into human suffering and offer no path for recovery. “Bug Like an Angel” follows the plight of an alcoholic who suspects they might drink their way to holiness. In “Frost,” a grief-stricken narrator copes with cosmic loneliness. The album literally has a song called “I Don’t Like My Mind.” And yet somehow, in the midst of total loss and self-destruction and confusion, Mitski’s listener cannot help but feel hopeful.
For Mitski, the path towards salvation is not out of suffering but through it. The beauty in her music does not exist despite its melancholy—it arises from it. In telling essential stories of love and loss, Mitski finds unity in human struggle. As James Baldwin once put it, “the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Mitski, though often revered as something of a godmother for the self-pitying, teaches her listeners that there is no shame in calling your pain as it is. On a collective level, it might be our greatest strength.