Anaïs Mitchell’s less then ten years into her career as a folk singer/songwriter, but she’s already released four albums that not only validate her as an excellent musician but demonstrate her singular ability at writing some of the most compelling and thought-provoking folk music being made right now. Hymns For The Exiled (2004) was a lo-fi, living room moment of reflections about what it meant to be American in a world of religious and emotional turmoil, and its follow-up The Brightness (2006) revealed a woman’s voice that knew vulnerability and mirth, hardship and love, and its material had many claiming that Mitchell was the direct descendent of both Ani DiFranco and Emmylou Harris. Very few expected the ensuing folk opera tour-de-force Hadestown, which was the culmination of a theater project/collaboration between Mitchell and Michael Chorney. It showcased some amazing talent, including the aforementioned DiFranco as Persephone, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Greg Brown as Hades, Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem) as Hermes, The Haden Triplets as the Fates and Mitchell rounding it out as Eurydice herself. It was a searingly brilliant and cohesive work that examined America in a post-apocalyptic, Depression-era gloom, but while it used a mythical past as its fabric, the piece felt utterly current and vibrant.
To follow up the spirit and acclaim of Hadestown seemed almost inconceivable, and it became worrisome that Mitchell had reached her creative peak with the opera. However, not only has she successfully produced a work that is on par with that level of quality, but she’s actually deepened her approach and intensified her songwriting vision with Young Man In America. It’s a first-rate album that continues to deliver across its eleven tracks in ways that unravel with each subsequent listen. But even more than that, there’s a maturity and grace to this record that Mitchell has certainly hinted at possessing, but there’s a calm and poise to her voice here that makes Young Man a wholly affecting and engaging work. The fact that she remains an underdog in the pop/folk world has now hit a critical imbalance, because the quality of her work and her tenacious loyalty to her craft deserve so much more.
The opening of the album is particularly different from anything Mitchell has attempted in her solo career before, and while that could indicate a messy result, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, the first two songs, which act as a musical couplet, are a magnificent synthesis of folk, alternative and 70’s Los Angeles-inspired acid rock. “Wilderland” is anchored by a strong drum that crashes on the downbeat creating a tribal feel, and then the rest if filled in with some delightful ambient sounds (a trademark Todd Sickafoose move), thoughtfully placed electric guitar and violin and throaty, sensual harmonies that maintain a slight menace. It segues right into the title track, which pulls back a little sonically to feature just Mitchell, a restrained 4/4 drum line and a despondent power chord-driven electric guitar. The way the song tapers, swells and explodes into each verse after the chorus gives it a rhythm and sway that Mitchell has never been able to fully engage before. Usually such a shift in style is met with some deficiency, but it’s like Mitchell has had this dark side inside of her, incubating and ready to pounce with teeth bared.
“Young Man In America” is followed by the hushed ballad “Coming Down”– a daring decision given the high energy of the first two songs. But “Coming Down” provides a welcome respite and chance to breathe after the nine-minute rollercoaster opening. Interestingly, when Mitchell performed this song for a few years before putting it to tape, she’d do so with a thick group of harmonies, and the tempo was faster and the entire sentiment of the song was fairly carefree and whimsical. This new version, however, is incredibly spacious, with often just a tenderly finger-picked acoustic guitar or Sickafoose’s delicate piano (usually done in block chords) used as instrumental flourishes. Also, there’s a beautiful fragility to Mitchell’s voice, as seen around 1:35 into the song, where she sings and sustains the word “free,” and all of a sudden her voice fails and falls out, but while it’s not technically perfect, it’s utterly honest and touching. For a song that may have sounded somewhat mediocre in its first incantation, this revamped rendition is stunning.
The tempo is kicked back into higher gear for the following two songs: “Dyin Day” and “Venus.” The latter is an old Anaïs Mitchell track that’s been around for quite some time, and may be the most upbeat and cheerful thing from her yet. The former dives back into the aesthetics of “Wilderland/Young Man In America,” featuring dense harmonies, electric guitar, drums and a sexy bass line. It also lyrically matches its predecessors, as Mitchell investigates the role of creation and death in a somewhat arcane and enigmatic way. She discusses the Abraham story, in which Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, and yet Mitchell avoids taking any specific moral stance, singing, “and who are you to understand the way of him who holds the blade? And who are you to stay the hand of him who made you?”
If Hymns of the Exiled followed America in the heart of the Iraqi War and the Bush Era, and The Brightness captured the voice of a young woman in the late 1980s/1990s who is coming into her own, then Hadestown was an ambling, whiskey-soaked traipse through Depression-era poverty and greed. To then end up with Young Man In America, whose journey takes us through 18th Century rhetorical vistas, harsh winters with blackened coffee, the calm of twilight flirtations and Protestant biblical narratives. It’s as if Mitchell is progressing back through history in her artistic evolution– in fact, her next slated project is a 18th Century British/Scottish ballads album with fellow singer/songwriter Jefferson Hamer. And while this expedition backwards into our ancestral bedrock may seem self-indulgent, Mitchell brings an attentive and critical focus, measured with a slight whimsy and caprice that rounds the oftentimes harsh edge of folk music, and delivers a brilliant, entirely cohesive and utterly striking work of art in Young Man In America.