Anais Mitchell: “Hadestown”
When’s the last time you heard a pop musician take inspiration from Greek mythology? My mind automatically goes to Nick Cave and his retelling of “The Lyre of Orpheus,” from his brilliant 2004 record of the same name. Cave re-imagines the Orpheus tale as– what else?– a dirty punk rock song, sleazy in all the right ways, and memorably rhyming the protagonist’s name with the word “orifice.” Now if only more mythology textbooks would take the same approach, I imagine it would be a much more popular topic in middle school English.
Anais Mitchell– an inspired young singer/songwriter who you’ve probably never heard of until now– has written an entire album about the Orpheus saga. Actually, it’s not just an album– it’s an entire “folk opera,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The show has been performed and tinkered with for several years now, played with different casts of singers and musicians, but the release of the Hadestown CD makes it definitive. It’s not the original cast recording– or even the original cast– but it, and Mitchell, are original through and through. And there’s also nothing about it that suggests the awesome vulgarity of Cave’s song; Mitchell’s is a poetry that’s much less lowbrow, and her Hadestown story is a human epic about love in the ruins, grace during trying times, holding on to compassion and integrity even when the chips are down.
The original Orpheus myth is about a man who follows his beloved into Hell. Mitchell’s version takes place during a post-apocalyptic American depression, in a city where times are “hard and getting harder all the time.” Underground, there’s a city that prospers, its ruler, Hades, having constructed a wall around the city that keeps wealth in and poverty out. So which one is Hell, exactly? Euridyce, voiced by Mitchell, finds out all too quickly when she abandons her poet lover Orpheus (Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon) for the posh set-up down in Hadestown. Judge her if you must, but the chorus of Fates– voiced by the Haden triplets– turns the question right back on us: Would we behave any differently, were our bellies and pocketbooks both empty?
Meanwhile, down south, Hades (Greg Brown) indoctrinates his subjects, with a cruel mantra that bears eerie resemblance to a certain Pink Floyd song. Why do they build the wall, he asks? They answer: To keep them free; to protect them from the enemy; the enemy is poverty, etc. They are creating security, at the cost of their own freedom. But behind Hades’ back, his wife Persephone (Ani DiFranco) runs a little speakeasy, a hole-in-the-wall where Hades’ slaves come for a taste of what they’ve left behind– like sunshine, flowers, summer air.
A project like this really has the odds stacked against it: For it not to topple under the weight of pretension, or of being too stagey, it takes a songwriter of graceful touch and generous spirit, which is exactly what we have in Mitchell. Her vision of Hadestown is a labor of love, to be sure, but what makes it work is that she’s humble enough not to do it all on her own. She made the album with arranger Michael Chorney, who ties lofty ambitions to the dirty ground with expressions of American folk music that range from country-blues to ragtime. When DiFranco introduces her speakeasy, Chorney gives her a deliciously raucous, seedy cabaret background. He gives the project what it really needs to succeed– songs. Not just a narrative arc, but songs that stand on their own and make each scene feel like a thing unto itself as much as a part of the greater tapestry of story.
Chorney believes in Mitchell’s vision, in all its audacity, and so do her guest singer. To the character of Hades, Brown brings a mixture of roguish seduction and royal weariness that makes the character at one villainous and empathetic. DiFranco could quit making records and get a career as a Broadway singer right now, so spirited is her performance as Persephone. Justin Vernon’s wounded falsetto turns out to be the perfect instrument for the legendary and heartbroken Orpheus. And Mitchell, in surrounding herself with singers who are all more famous and experienced than her and in going out of her way not to be the star here, somehow stands out as the star nevertheless; perhaps it’s because her generous creative spirit is abundantly clear in every note she sings.
Her generosity and genuine humility inform everything about the way this project takes shape: This being a myth, Mitchell is wise in treating it as an archetype, an album that’s broad enough to be about love and greed and politics, precise enough to invoke acute ethical conundrums and real-world crises of courage and good faith. Some have said that the album is a metaphor for Israel and Palestine, for the U.S. in an age of homeland security and racial profiling, but there’s nothing here that’s ham-fisted, nor is there anything that suggests Mitchell is willing to settle for easy definitions of good and evil. She sounds like she is at play here, following the myth and her carefully fleshed-out characters to their inevitable conclusions and simply allowing the themes to resonate all on their own.
It’s telling that two of the story’s most climactic moments are presented here as instrumental pieces; Mitchell is confident in her poetry– which is clever and profound and never cliched– but also in the gifts of her collaborators, and she trusts that the musicians will tell this story just as evocatively and suggestively as she herself does. The wordless songs aren’t a cheat, but a tease– they spur the listener to imagine his or her own words, and draw unique conclusions. Would that every artist could come to the table with ideas as big and audacious as this one, and still trust listeners to be able to keep pace and follow along. Hadestown affords the listener this very liberty, and in so doing it becomes an album that’s original and unforgettable.