Anaïs Mitchell has never been afraid of exploring different styles and tackling different subjects; whether it has been the Greek myth-inspired folk-opera Hadestown, or the politically charged storytelling of Hymns For the Exiled, Mitchell has always proved up to the task, as well as being able to boast the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and folk-legend Ani Difranco as contributors to her music.
Her new release, Young Man In America, more than lives up to its predecessors. Opener, Wilderland, sets up, without delay, the poignant, wasteland image with its solitary guitar and thumping bass drum, interspersed every so often with sounds reminiscent of a wailing hound and her own piercing vocals, as she tells us our ‘highways are a Wilderland’, propelling us straight into the harsh American tales that we have come to expect.
The album’s success comes from its completeness and its seamlessness, as a whole it is like one prolonged thought, tone, story and feeling, which allows the songs to effortlessly slide between one another. Whether it’s the hopeful, yet plaintive, ballad of Coming Down or the irresistible toe-tapping jauntiness of Venus, you are constantly kept on your toes throughout and Mitchell never allows you to sit back for too long before picking you up again. One downfall is that it is so self-aware and self-contained that it is difficult to listen to just one song without craving the musical context that they all offer each other.
That said, the second half of the album takes a much more steady tone, with Mitchell choosing to spin tales of lovers and romance, showing truly how talented and capable a storyteller she is. Tailor tells the innocent tale of a woman taking up different professions to play to the pleasures of her leaving lover and, as you find throughout, you are left as sympathetic and stirred as if it were your situation she had sung. There is a visual brilliance to her songs, none so accomplished as Shepherd, a story of a man who unwittingly sacrifices his wife and unborn child to tend to his crops; not only can Mitchell bring these stories to life with her raw emotion, but it has a cinematic quality which left me connected and empathetic to the characters and the plot, to the point where you are living the action in your head.
The most striking quality that Mitchell has never seemed to lose is her ability to lose herself completely in her lyrics and her music; each song feels like she is giving it her all and the palpitating rise and fall throughout allows you to see her in every aspect of her passions, and allows her to give everything she has got. It is an album that shows Anaïs Mitchell at her lyrical best and is yet another brilliant showcase of her bold, urban vigour.