Anais Mitchell may be a relatively unknown singer-songwriter to most folks, although she's been working her way up the proverbial food chain for a few years. Her last full-length album, The Brightness
dropped on Righteous Babe in 2007, followed by a brief EP the following year. Neither could possibly compare, however, to Hadestown
- a folk opera modeled after the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Hadestown Mythology
For those who may be unaware, the mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice goes something like this: Eurydice steps in a nest of snakes, which bite her on the heel and kill her. Orpheus is so sadstricken by the death of his love that he travels to the underworld in hopes to retrieve her. Along the way, he plays such sad music that it charms Hades and his wife Persephone - who rule the underworld. Hades strikes a deal with Orpheus - the latter can retrieve his love and take her back with him but, as they travel out of the underworld, Orpheus cannot look back or talk to her. Of course, the journey is long and difficult, and Orpheus eventually looks back, breaking the deal with Hades and sending his lover away forever.
Mitchell's underworld here is a boomtown called Hadestown, where Hades (sung by Greg Brown) is the boss of a wall-building company working on a wall around the city to keep the poor out. His wife Persephone (Ani DiFranco), while still with a certain thirst for power, is sympathetic to the pursuits of the poor and, more notably, the beauty of Orpheus' song. Mitchell sings the role of Eurydice with such sweet, earnest musicality that one can easily imagine why that character is the center of this story.
Unsurprisingly - because, after all, it's the basis of this entire story - the songs written for Orpheus (sung here by Bon Iver
's Justin Vernon) are easily the most haunting and beautiful of the bunch. The entire opera kicks off with "Wedding Song," a truly inventive love story which audibly captures a fluid, true romance. Later, Vernon returns with "If It's True," one of the saddest heartbreak songs since his For Emma, Forever Ago
disc of two years ago. This is the song where he realizes his lover is gone, and commits to finding her again. The entire collection peaks with "Doubt Comes In," the album's penultimate track, where Orpheus/Vernon realizes he has, once and for all, lost his love.
There are other highlights, of course. Hades and Persephone's discussion about the beauty of Orpheus' song is notable. Here, in fact, are two of contemporary folk music's greatest players showing precisely why they're both revered for being great interpreters of music. Brown's gritty bass cynically rolls around the Mitchell's words and compositions, sounding disgusted by the mere suggestion that a song could hold enough beauty to be worth giving up one's power. He's convinced by his wife (DiFranco), whose emotive, intrinsically poetic vocals are at once pleading and powerful. It's a terrific turning point, which captures the interplay between the personal and political - a thing for which Mitchell's music is generally known, and which seems to be the greatest moral of this story.
The Bottom Line
Hadestown is possibly one of the most creative and provocative contemporary folk albums of recent note. Mitchell's storyline stays true enough to the original mythology soas to honor its tradition, while pulling in modern themes and ideas to keep it fresh. Though it would seem the boomtown imagery is quasi-Depression-era, so much of the desperation and separation of the classes, thirst for power, manipulation, doubt, and all the other things which motivate this story, are timeless and timely themes. In other words, the album (and, one can only assume, its corresponding play) succeeds on all counts. Considering the players here, it would be surprising if Hadestown were anything less than outstanding.