I have to admit that when I learned that was releasing a new cd, the news made me a little nervous. Her last album, Hadestown, was my favorite album of 2010 and remains my favorite album of the last several years. Impeccably produced by Todd Sickafoose, it takes the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and updates it, bringing the story into a Depression-era (or is it the Great Recession?) company town where Hades is king and Orpheus sings to win his dead wife back to the living. He fails as always when doubt comes in. Hadestown invariably leaves me in a muddle of verklemptness (as Persephone and Eurydice raise their cup to the lost Orpheus) and awe as the last beautiful notes fade away.
Would Young Man In America be anywhere near as good as Hadestown? My own doubt wondered about this.
My doubt can be silly sometimes. Young Man In America is another wonderful record from Anaïs Mitchell.
On the discography page of her website, Ms. Mitchell says that the new cd was “inspired by American manhood, British ballads and my father.” It starts quietly, yet insistently, with an introductory piece singing of children wandering in the wilderland (the name of her new record label), a bleak landscape where mothers were once shelterers and fathers shepherds, but are they still? I really like the rhythms she plays with on this one.
The album continues, following the titular young man (or men) from his birth (My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out) through his adventures in the wilderland of America and other mythic places. Mortality and fatherhood weigh heavily on several songs like “Dyin Day,” “Shepherd,” and “He Did.” “Dyin Day” is one of my favorites. In this one, Mitchell visits another myth, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac at the behest of Abraham’s god (Be it ill or be it good / Oh my sweet babe / I am doing as I should / Every day a dying day). This song has some fine mandolin as well as sweet harmonies from Chris Thile. “He Did” could almost be a sequel to “Dyin Day,” the singer telling how much a father loved his son. In “Shepherd” another mother arrives, but her time is short.
There are other women in these songs, as well. Stepping out on my interpretation limb, I see them as women that the young man becomes involved with. Two of the songs are from his point of view (“Venus” and “Annmarie”) and two are from the women’s (“Tailor” and “Ships”). “Venus” is the most upbeat song on the cd, an older tune of Mitchell’s that fits right in as a song about first love. “Tailor” and “Ships” are the most interesting to me. Mitchell’s songcraft really shines on these, the first a tale of a woman who, when her lover leaves her, doesn’t know who she is because she’s allowed him to define her. The latter shows a woman’s side of things as the man she loves waits for his ship to come in. I was lucky to see her perform both tunes last summer at a house concert in Williamstown, MA. Great live, but I love how they really came together in the studio. Her wistful voice, the instrumentation, the production: it all creates something special and brings the poetry of her lyrics an extra edge. (And you parted your lips for a herring-fish / Didn’t part them for me)
I love Anaïs Mitchell’s voice; it takes the hand of the listener and leads him or her through the complex worlds she creates in her songs. Orpheus would have serious competition if he were to return for another singing contest. I also love the production that complements that voice. Todd Sickafoose does a fantastic job creating a three-dimensional sound similar to his work on Hadestown. It’s deep and rich, velvety and luscious. Quite the pleasure to listen to. My only complaint is that the drama Mitchell creates in her songs can occasionally feel too manipulative. “Shepherd,” for example, is very predictable, telegraphing the woman’s death early on. That said, it still brought tears to my eyes the first few times I listened to it. Manipulative is all right, if you have the skills to back it up (Alfred Hitchcock, for example). Anaïs Mitchell has those skills.
Below is another song from Young Man In America that I haven’t spoken about yet. It kind of speaks for itself.