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Friday, September 29, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man In America


1) Wilderland; 2) Young Man In America; 3) Coming Down; 4) Dyin Day; 5) Venus; 6) He Did; 7) Annmarie; 8) Tailor; 9) Shepherd; 10) You Are Forgiven; 11) Ships.

It was clearly a tough affair for Mitchell to follow up Hadestown with anything of comparable status: on one hand, you don't really want to go down in history as a writer of folk musicals, but on the other hand, how can you just go back to an acoustic guitar after having just achieved such a major breakthrough? Keeping in mind both that dilemma and the fact that flashiness and nota­bility are never a trademark of her songwriting, Young Man In America does a fairly good job of getting her out of this situation. Without sacrificing a certain aura of grandness and importance that she'd struck out of Hadestown, she goes back to solo performance centered around contem­porary, rather than ancient, mythology and culture, and gives us a cold and bitter look at the state of affairs in this world rather than the next one, maybe from a semi-detached perspective of the ghost of Eurydice, I don't really know — the important thing is that now she has enough self-confidence to make major statements from the top of a fairly tall tower.

The very first track is far from consoling: a minimalistic, dirge-like performance of gloomy, stuttering acoustic chords, scraping, muted strings, and howling vocal harmonies — in this case, perfectly suited to the lyrics about howling winds, howling wolves, and lost children singing ooh-ooh in the wilderlands. That, my friends, is the state of things: maybe, living in America in 2012, you have failed to notice that "your cities are a wilderland", but Anaïs Mitchell is here to remind you, and if the first time does not succeed, then the title track will pick up precisely from where ʽWilder­landʼ leaves off, informing you that the correct definition for a "young man in America" is "hungry, hungry, running every which way". It is a pretty good track, too, with moments of climactic emotional outbursts (every time Mitchell drives the chorus home) and moments of static, draggy gloom, epitomized by the narcoleptic brass solos at the end (I think, once again, that she inherited this somnambulant jazz pattern from Ani DiFranco, but she can be much better at it than Ani DiFranco — though not always). Thus, eight minutes into the album the sun will have no business shining into your room, and the three years of Barack Obama's presidency so far will seem petty and insignificant compared to the apocalyptic dog-eat-dog picture painted by the all-seeing wife of Orpheus.

This is Mitchell's Dust Bowl Ballads here, an album far more musically and lyrically advanced than Woody Guthrie's — but also, perhaps, taking this misery thing a bit too far; after all, the depression of 2008 was nowhere near comparable in horror to the Great Depression, and for all the ongoing troubles of the human society in the USA as of 2012, I have a touch of difficulty feeling convinced by Mitchell's attempt to squeeze all that moroseness out of herself. Fortunately, the remainder of the album is either more subtle or less expressly tied to the current times — or to America, for that matter (ʽDyin' Dayʼ, I think, with its clever twist on the sacrifice of Isaac, once again refers to the situation in Palestine). But on the other hand, the remainder of the album is also not nearly as vivid — sooner or later, Mitchell is bound to get bogged down a bit in pure atmosphere, and as far as I'm concerned, it already happens on the third track, ʽComing Downʼ, which is just a sleep-inducing adult contemporary throwaway piece (soft piano, soft acoustic guitars, soft vocals, wake me up when it's over).

Still, the lyrics are consistently good, and every now and then, the album still gathers enough potential to awaken the listener — as it does on the upbeat folk-pop ditty ʽVenusʼ, or on the gorgeous «traditional» folk ballad ʽShepherdʼ (although, re-reading its lyrics, I still can't quite understand the moral of the story — is it deploring the poor state of mother-and-child care condi­tions in rural vicinities?). And she also manages to top it off in fine fashion with ʽShipsʼ, a slow, purely romantic ballad about a girl seeing her lover off to sea, replete with a post-rock crescendo that finally puts all that brass to good use.

On the whole, the record definitely deserves a thumbs up for the effort, but it is patchy, and if you only know Mitchell through Hadestown, it can be quite a letdown because it does not even come close to the inventiveness of the lady's masterpiece. The worst thing, really, is that it fails where Hadestown succeeded: putting ancient mythology in a modern setting, apparently, was a far more believable deed than putting a modern setting in not-so-ancient culture. If you are happy about your life, Young Man In America might irritate you rather than depress you; if you are already unhappy about your life, I just do not see it as an adequate soundtrack to that unhappiness. The best way to enjoy it, I think, is to take it completely out of context.

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