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.