Anaïs Mitchell: Review of Anaïs Mitchell – exit from Hades | Music
Ahen the 2000s turned into the 2010s, Anaïs Mitchell seemed an easy-to-spot artist. His career unfolded in an unpretentious style, somewhere in the region where country and folk meet alternative rock. She had well-reviewed albums released on her own label, sessions for the Bob Harris show on Radio 2 and NPR’s Tiny Desk, backing slots with Bon Iver. This was before she developed a Greek mythology-themed song from her 2007 album The Brightness into a small-scale musical called Hadestown, which turned into an album featuring Justin Vernon and Ani. DiFranco – a sort of Pitchfork-friendly equivalent of the all-star concept albums that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice used to spark interest in Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. This spawned an off-Broadway production, which in turn spawned a Broadway production, which won eight Tony Awards.
His unexpected success leaves Mitchell in a curious position. An acclaimed Broadway writer, she is apparently planning another musical, but her self-titled seventh solo album – her first original track in 10 years – sees her pick up where she left off as a singer-songwriter. Or more or less: Hadestown’s success means there’s far more media interest than before, and its cottage industry label Wilderland has been dropped for a deal with BMG. But despite this, Anaïs Mitchell is an album for which the adjective “unpretentious” could have been invented.
The sound is slightly polished and the songs melodic enough to bear comparison with Taylor Swift in downhome mode (Mitchell and Swift both contributed vocals to Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s latest album as the Big Red Machine), but any the company is remarkably discreet. . Surrounding Mitchell’s acoustic guitar are delicate highlights of tremolo guitar or electric piano; tiny traces of electronics so subtly placed you barely notice them the first time; the occasional sax solo courtesy of Bon Iver sideman Michael Lewis, extending gracefully in a way reminiscent of the use of the same instrument on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, as well as Lewis’ work on the album inspired by the soft rock of the small hours of Gayngs Relayted. Even the drums are gently tapped: rimshots rather than snares; brushes and soft mallets rather than chopsticks.
The fact that the musical landscape is filmed in soft focus draws the listener’s attention to Mitchell’s distinctive voice – as you might be eager to if you had spent the past decade focusing on other people singing your songs. Meanwhile, the songs are obviously personal, which might also appeal if you’ve spent the last decade focusing on telling a story for the stage. The opening track, Brooklyn Bridge, explores the eternal thrill of approaching Manhattan by car at night. But the rest of the album shifts its gaze to Mitchell’s hometown in Vermont and is steeped in childhood memories. At the gently insistent Revenant, she rummages through a deceased relative’s keepsake box. Backroads is filled with hazy memories of teenage parties and old romances. Even when it’s not specifically about Mitchell’s hometown – to which she moved when Covid hit – the album is nostalgic: On Your Way recounts the death of a fellow musician, cleverly turning the title into a reflection both on the beginning of his career and on his death.
They are concise, well-written songs, skillfully adorned with crisp lines and unexpected tonal shifts. The whole album is finished and made in barely half an hour. A few lowlights – Now You Know and the whine of your Real World smartphone – pass by so quickly you barely notice them. His voice goes from breathless to harsh, which perfectly matches his lyrical style.
Too smart to indulge in sentimentality, Mitchell has a habit of suddenly shifting emotional gears in the middle of a song. Backroads ranges from Nashville stuff about small town life (where even the stars at night “seem to say you’re one of us”) to starkly contrast the treatment his friends received from the police when they were was caught for underage drinking with this inflicted on another acquaintance pulled over for a minor traffic violation: “Somebody thought he didn’t look good / They might as well have said that ‘he didn’t look white’. Little Big Girl goes from an examination of aging (“You grew up by mistake, you grew up by surprise”) to a scathing condemnation of the male gaze.
And it recurs on The Words closer, which begins with worrying about life happening on the outside when you’re stuck inside working, and ends with Mitchell apologizing to his husband for thinking of the lyrics when she should be in the moment. Obviously, a lot of thought has gone into this album. It’s not a strident statement designed to sweep the boards at award ceremonies, but, in its own way, it’s as striking a display of its author’s songwriting abilities as Hadestown. It’s the work of a successful artist on a big stage now working in miniature, transpiring the little things with utterly charming results.
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