Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown:" Thinking Themselves Gods

Writing is hard, no doubt. Minds operate in abstractions that precede words, and the human capacity to capture those pre-verbal concepts and arrange them into something as clumsy and concrete as written language is nothing short of miraculous. Capturing musical ideas and impressions, which are even more abstract and ephemeral, is particularly difficult.  For these blog entries, I often struggle to figure out when (or even if) I really “have” enough of an album to write anything meaningful.  For example, I have had at least two aborted attempts to begin an entry for Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, both of which I shelved because as I began to reify my thoughts with the written word and look at them, I felt like I was missing something. There always seemed to be more to this album, and every time I tried to pin it down, I noticed a new layer of meaning and craft that seemed to deserve some attention.

Initially, I discovered Hadestown at the top of some website’s “all-time best” list (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one), and other accolades from reviews were substantial. My first search on Hadestown brought up this live solo performance of Mitchell performing Why We Build the Wall.  Lyrics are rarely a hook for me, but the layers of meaning folded into this song grabbed my attention.

On its own, Why We Build the Wall is a memorable and profound commentary on the self-sustaining illusion that the poor are essentially “other” in relation to the rich. Within the larger context of Hadestown, however, it takes on a much more nuanced meaning.

Hadestown proudly wears the label “folk opera,” but thanks to the arrangements of Micheal Chorney, the album is far more colorful than the name would suggest. There is a heartfelt and subtle cleverness that brings to mind some of Elvis Costello’s more eccentric collaborations. Like most contemporary pop opera, however, it owes a debt of gratitude to Tommy, and I think Pete Townshend would be proud. Hadestown has clearly defined characters that follow a plot arc, character development, a climax, and a resolution. These characters are convincingly enacted by a great cast of established musicians that include Justin Vernon as Orpheus and Ani DiFranco as Persephone (although I do feel like the voice of Hades, Greg Brown, pays a groaning tribute to Leon Redbone that grows a bit threadbare by album’s end).

Wedding Song - Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon by Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon on Grooveshark

The perceptive might have guessed - Hadestown retells of the myth of Orpheus. In this story’s most common form, Eurydice dies and becomes lost in the underworld. Armed only with song, Orpheus travels to the underworld and convinces Hades to release Eurydice, on the condition that Orpheus resists the temptation to turn around to see if his love was indeed following him. On paper, a contemporary libretto based on this well-trod tale might seem pretentious. Mitchell, however, dodges cliché by resetting the story in the Great Depression, opening up a distinctive set of conditions and relationships that capture the fanciful ideals of Greek mythology while shrouding them in the aesthetic of a prohibition-era variety show.

From a purely musical standpoint, Hadestown is incredibly compelling. Its playful use of style and emotion keeps the entire experience serious, but relatively lighthearted. The concept that undergirds the songs that comprise the album, however, is even more unique and well-executed. The abstract, archetypical concepts underlying the Orpheus myth take on a more visceral meaning in Mitchell’s reinterpretation, where rich men take the place of ancient gods, and greed is a force as unrelenting as death itself. After several weeks of regular rotation, the depth of this extended metaphor just hit me today and made me realize that there is much, much more to Hadestown than I had previously thought. I might be listening to this one for quite awhile.

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