December : Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown

There are few more terrifying musical notions than the words conjured by the phrase ‘folk opera’, which is how Mitchell describes this album. And when I was introduced to it by my friend Alex Fox, I had pretty low expectations. I do have a place in my heart for some folk and not just of the Nick Drake variety; indeed, I’ve really got into late 60s Fairport Convention in the last few years and have a reasonably high tolerance.

I’ve just been reading Bob Stanley’s astonishing book on the history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah – and by the way, as music fans, you REALLY need to read it – and he makes some interesting points about folk and folk rock in the 70s: namely that it was so insular, it actually turned off its potential audience. It didn’t say come on in, it said you don’t understand our narrow world so piss off. And that, in a nutshell, is folk’s problem at its worst.

And that’s what’s so astonishing about Mitchell’s album. Do I understand the convoluted story of the album (something about Orpheus rescuing his wife Eurydice from the underworld)? Do I heck? Do I understand exactly all the roles played by the various fabulous guest singers, from Bon Iver to Ani diFranco? Nope. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter, at least not to me. The songs are expansive and warm and I’m charmed by her cutesy voice and her ambition. From the moment she duets with Bon Iver on Wedding Song, you know you’re in for something rich and – yes – inviting. Come on in, she seems to say, and I’ll tell you a story. I afore this record. I’d love to know what you made of it.

9 comments

  1. David Allison

    Ps That final paragraph from Mitchell’s blog pretty much nails it:

    “The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone sings at the end of the show: ‘Some birds sing when the sun shines bright / my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise my cup to him.’ “

  2. whyohwhyohwhy

    Brother David, I have to share your trepidation here with the word ‘folk’. I’m even more sparse on my experience (and acceptance) of the genre, with some Fairport Convention in my teens and a few others, but I can’t really even stomach the likes of Joni Mitchell (though I love Laura Marling – go figure) so this did strike a bit of fear into me. 

    Having said that, a glance at the collaborators perked me up. I’m a massive Bon Iver fan, and Justin Vernon’s voice and style fits into this very well. Listening to the album it’s pretty seamless and the tracks where he’s on are the instant standouts for me. Wedding Song is brilliant. There’s lots to be interested in here as well. Greg Brown’s got some serious Dr John vibes going on, and while the 50s style female trios thing is about as far from me as you can get, The Haden Triplets works pretty well. 

    I don’t ‘get’ or connect with everything, and while this washes over me very pleasantly, I’m not yet sure if it’ll stay on the music player for the long term, but I also see the likes of Wedding Song staying on there. It’s beautiful. Even if it just makes me want another Justin Vernon solo album now. 

    Interestingly, on the Orpheus/Euridyce angle, this is also something that’s a theme on the Arcade Fire album. ‘Orpheus’ on there mines the myth of him going to the underworld to sing (and revive) his wife Eurydice, and it’s also revived on Afterlife. I think the Hadestown thing here’s uplifting that story into a sort of Depression-era midwest town, so much more a western vibe, which, as Mitchell says, chimes with now, much more than she’d have expected when she wrote it. Good work, brother. 

  3. misterstory

    Do you ever have an idea that you just never realise but keep on needing the idea … I want to be able to plot my appreciation of our albums of the month over time. The reason being I think how you connect with an album is really important in the early days and it can shape how you interact with it in the future. The first time I heard this I was blown away. With one caveat. I only heard up to Track 11. I later listened to the 2nd half and was a little less impressed. I’ve actually never managed to get all the way through this album without considerable interruptions. My main chance to listen to an album like this ‘properly’ would be in the car while driving for work and having been on holiday I’ve not had this chance. I don’t want to judge too early so I will save my thoughts other than initial pondering(s) (i) I love her voice (ii) i love the American Jazz and blues tinged tracks (iii) I find the deep male voice a little grating (iv) I;ve not had the opportunity to connect with this lyrically yet but it sounds very nicely done (v) the latter tracks seem to drag a little (vi) the narrative of the story means that the album does not flow like a ‘normal’ album. This may sound obvious but it strikes me more with this album than other concept albums.

    Will write more when I have spent more time. Very interesting choice though.

  4. whyohwhyohwhy

    I’ve given this a good run now, 4 or 5 goes. I really like how it starts, and the feel of it, and especially love anything with Justin Vernon in it. I ‘get’ the story, and how it’s transposed to the midwest, depression-era, and that works well. But I’m with Brother Joseph here, I just feel it runs out of steam a bit. Of course onstage, 58 minutes is nothing really, but over the course of the album, where you’re not exposed to the spectacle as well as the music, my attention starts to waver. I think I’m a little hamstrung by my journey to work, which veers between 25 and 35 minutes. This means I never get the chance to get through the whole thing (I’ve managed it once fully). But it just means that maybe I’m not getting the full effect, but I still find that I’m engaged at the start and then it starts to just wander a bit. I think it’s a bit depressing that my attention span falls away like this, as I can do an hour mix no problem, and albums of 40-50 mins, but this just seems to go the wrong side of the divide.

  5. David Allison

    I kind of agree with you all re the length. My concentration does waver too. And perhaps that’s why I’ve never really got into the story as much as I’d like. What I’ve started to do is listen to only the second half sometimes instead of the first and suddenly, it seemed to open up a lot more. But I’m glad you’re finding something in it as a record, it is an interesting album and she’s certainly a proper artist of note.

  6. misterstory

    Hi Brothers. Just read my initial post and it makes no sense at all. Must have been pissed.

    I started to listen to this from track 12 onwards too so that I could ‘get the 2nd half in’ but I found it less penetrable this way too. I think you need the 1st half as the door opener for the slower 2nd half and I think this is the best way to listen to it (start to finish) but for me the narrative dictates to the album. I am not a huge consumer of concept albums so I don’t really know how the genre usually behaves (I guess its dependent on the narrative?).

    Its still an album that I am glad to have in my life, thanks Brother David.

  7. nolankane706

    Brother David, respect for this selection. It’s a bit riskier then usual and that’s a good thing. I think I’m re-hashing what others have said really.

    From the offset I was looking forward to this on the plain fact of who was involved in this album… a strong line up to say the least.

    It starts well but then I seem to drift a bit. I have had it in the car and like it at first and then seem to loose attention after a few songs. There are some really good tracks on this and I think there is allot to be said for a concept album like this.

    If I heard the songs individually on a compilation perhaps I think I’d love them as they are different and stand out…. Together they have the opposite effect.

    Like Brother Joseph I’m glad to have this in my collection.

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