Album Review: Young Man In America by Anaïs Mitchell
Excellent, Based on 7 Critics
PopMatters - 80 Based on rating 8/10
Anaïs Mitchell’s last album Hadestown was a “folk opera” which set Orpheus and Eurydice in “Post-apocalyptic Depression-era America”. It drew a guestlist including Bon Iver and Ani Difranco and was rightly lavished with garlands, rosettes and Sheriff badges. A 20-track widescreen wonder worthy of John Ford, it was so epic it had not one but two songs actually called “Epic”.
How do you follow something like Hadestown? A multi-voiced, 20-track epic tale of the Greek underworld, awe-inspiring enough to have warranted a perfect ten on this very site should be almost impossible to top. Thankfully, Anais Mitchell’s answer is refreshingly simple: Young Man In America. Narrowing her scope without lowering her ambition, Mitchell delivers a more traditional collection of singer-songwriter tracks, and does so without any marked drop in quality from its incredible predecessor.
Anais Mitchell's Hadestown was a major gear-shift for the singer-songwriter, a wildly ambitious folk-jazz-blues opera that brought out the best in her. So it's hard to approach this follow-up without a certain anxiety. Sure enough, the first listen is sufficiently deflating that you wonder whether it was everything peripheral to Mitchell – not least Michael Chorney's vivid arrangements – that made Hadestown so great.
Anaïs Mitchell's last album, the garlanded Hadestown, turned the story of Orpheus and Eurydice into a "folk opera". This follow-up is only slightly less ambitious, ingeniously exploring relationships between parents and children in a landscape part modern, part mythical. The title track, about a son whose father is "a repo man" and who "arrived like a cannonball", sets the tone with its mix of frontier archaisms and modern references, while subsequent songs take the part of mothers, lovers, orphans, poets and shepherds.
When Justin Vernon paid tribute to "the non-nominees who will never be [on this stage]" in his acceptance speech for the Best New Artist Grammy, it's possible one of the artists he had in mind was the ambitious, somewhat overlooked Vermont-born folk singer Anaïs Mitchell. Bon Iver has been covering a new tune of hers, "Coming Down", on their most recent tour, and Vernon sang on Mitchell's last release, 2010's Hadestown. That record was a 20-song, acoustic-driven opera telling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Vernon voicing the former, Mitchell the latter, and Ani DiFranco occasionally showing up to play Persephone.
Anais MitchellYoung Man In America(Wilderland Records)Rating: Just as it took until 1999 for the larger world to wake to the brilliance of Stephin Merritt, in 2010, the popular musical consciousness caught up with the work of Anais Mitchell via her ambitious album and stage show Hadestown. And just as Merritt didn’t squander all that goodwill with his follow-up release i, so too has Mitchell put a permanent stamp of approval on her already sparkling reputation with the gorgeous and striving Young Man In America. Musically speaking, the scale of this new album is much more modest than Hadestown.
A marvel of a record from start to finish. James Skinner 2012 "Look upon your children," Anaïs Mitchell sings on Young Man in America’s opening song; "Wandrin’ in the wilderland / Look upon your children / Wandrin’ in the woods." For her follow-up to 2010’s stunning folk-opera Hadestown she tones down the scale a little yet offers something equally startling: a modern folk record that snaps and sparkles with energy, daring to take on some formidable themes in the process. It is America itself she addresses in that first song; a country that is starting to crumble and a population that has lost its way.