Let me get this out of the way early: Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is what it’s advertised to be, a tour de force example of how the world of operatic music can and, upon occasion will, translate across genres.
Mitchell has been reportedly working on this “folk opera” based on the Greek mythology involving Orpheus and Eurydice since 2006. But despite being able to launch the opera on in a live setting during two different indie theater runs, her ability to have her full vision realized was not possible until she got a little help from her friends.
With the aid of Ani DiFranco, who had, years prior, signed Mitchell to her Righteous Babe label, Mitchell was able to put together a master-class of musicians. With special guests Greg Brown, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Ben Knox Miller (Low Anthem) along with the not-to-be-underestimated orchestral skills of Michael Chorney, Mitchell decided to head into the studio to record the opera in all its glory, including detailed aural characterization and a full libretto, ready to be dissected by the avid music junkie in all of us.
The album is almost certainly going to draw comparisons to The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, which was one of last year’s most critically acclaimed albums. On the surface such a comparison might seem fitting, but when one delves deeper into Hadestown it’s possible to hear why her album is able to fittingly be called a true “opera.” The meticulous craft put into both the lyrics and the full-band orchestral arrangements allow this song cycle to flow magnificently as a complicated whole. Though the Decemberists came close to reaching that level of perfection, their album occasionally verged on the melodramatic, and the libretto was a mess — it took whole paragraphs to explain just what the hell was happening from point A to point B.
Hadestown, conversely, is a model of efficiency. The story could seem complicated in less skilled hands, particularly if the musicians had succumbed to the pressure to be overdramatic since that’s what many expect in “operatic” music. Instead, each song plays a distinct role in the progression of the story. There’s no added drama; the characters are allowed to fully develop without becoming overwhelming. And in less than an hour the entire album plays out its wrenching tale, coming to a distinct and fitting end — one which I suspect will leave more than a few listeners physically drained.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus and Eurydice are young lovers, husband and wife. Orpheus is called “the father of songs,” son of the river god Oeagrus and the muse Calliope. Eurydice is seduced by Hades into being bitten by a serpent, and is drawn down to hell. Orpheus is given permission by the Gods to go to rescue her, and legend has it that Hades is actually “moved” to give him her freedom, if he’s able to leave Hell with her behind him, trusting she’s there… no looking back. When he fails, looking backward before both are safely beyond the gates of Hell, she’s forced to return and he must spend the rest of his life pining for her through his music, never able to be with his true love as the Gods won’t let him go back, humilated by his failure.
Mitchell has chosen to set Hadestown during what may or may not be the Great Depression of the 1930s, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans are starved for even the most basic needs in life, and Hades is right there to provide them with work, if they’re willing to give up their very humanity.
The guests on Mitchell’s album bring this story to life in stunning clarity. As Eurydice, she’s willing to play a role, taking something of a backseat to her guests, while still imbuing the character with a great deal of depth. Her Eurydice goes beyond the myth, succumbing to Hades out of pure desperation, unsure that Orpheus will be able to provide for her, something she regrets through song for the remainder of the tale. Her “Flowers” is one of the album’s most heartbreaking songs.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon proves to have far more artistic range than many may give him credit for, breathing so much life into his character that we’re left on the edge of our seats as he’s tested by the fates. A lesser musician would have struggled with songs like “Wait For Me” and the album’s most stunningly raw moment, “Doubt Comes In,” when his fear has to show through nothing but the vocals. They require an incredible amount of vocal depth, something Vernon provides time and again.
But the real star of the album is Greg Brown, a folk artist with more than two dozen albums to his name. Brown’s deep-throated growl thunders through the album, providing a deep sonic weight to the entire opera. He also happens to take part in three of the album’s biggest showstoppers.
“Hey, Little Songbird” sees Hades alternately tempting and taunting Eurydice, luring her into his version of hell on Earth, but he brings down the house with “Why We Build The Wall,” a brooding catechism in which Hades indoctrinates his newest souls, in what is perhaps the strongest lyrical point on Hadestown. A meditation on freedom versus necessity, it’s such a timely song as to almost demand further discussion among listeners. And his debate with wife Persephone (DiFranco) on “How Long?” pulses with raw emotion: fear, hate, frustration, all thrown into a seething kettle as Hades must decide what must be done with this troublemaking Orpheus.
What results from all these forces coming together is, hands down, the strongest single folk music album I’ve found this decade. Mitchell’s four years of work put into this project show more clearly than anything that she values this as her masterwork. Having listened to the rest of her catalog, it becomes even clearer that, though she’s always been a talented member of the folk community, Hadestown is indeed a marked improvement, one which almost certainly will go down as her finest work. Blending blues, jazz, country and other folk idioms into one work of complex beauty, she’s stumbled on a potent blend which should help introduce folk and Americana to a wider audience than ever before.
For that reason, it’s an album which deserves to be heard and heard again, studied and shared, and above all, treasured. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that no other album this year is going to match it for sheer audacity and, ultimately, for superb artistic merit. Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is going to be an album around for the long haul, and should become a lasting example of where folk music can go when the right musicians take hold of history.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.