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Friday, September 22, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown


1) Wedding Song; 2) Epic (Part 1): 3) Way Down Hadestown; 4) Songbird (intro); 5) Hey, Little Songbird; 6) Gone, I'm Gone; 7) When The Chips Are Down; 8) Wait For Me; 9) Why We Build The Wall; 10) Our Lady Of The Underground; 11) Flowers; 12) Nothing Changes; 13) If It's True; 14) Papers (Hades Finds Out); 15) How Long; 16) Epic (Part 2); 17) Lover's Desire; 18) His Kiss, The Riot; 19) Doubt Comes In; 20) I Raise My Cup To Him.

When the thousands of modern artists are replaced by tens of thousands of the artists of tomorrow, and when cultural memory becomes but a feeble phantom next to digital memory, Hadestown, I hope and believe, will still be the album that Anaïs Mitchell is going to be remembered by. Not because it is necessarily the best thing she did, but simply because this is where she showed the bravery to step out of a certain predictable comfort zone — trying to make an arrogant mark on the world that was all her own.

Hadestown is a «folk opera» that builds upon the premise found in ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, a song from The Brightness where Mitchell came up with an imaginary dialog between the two characters, and sang both of their parts. Apparently, the track was an excerpt from the already existing first draft of the entire cycle, but this now is the final draft, a complete musical version of the Orpheus myth, this time inviting plenty of guest stars to take up all the parts. The musical arrangements would be the most complex in her career so far, yet the music itself would strictly follow «pre-rock» patterns: some folk, some country, some blues, some vaudeville, and almost nothing that could have it labeled as either a «rock opera» or a «musical». I would not dare say that she was the first to come up with such an idea — though nobody else springs to mind at the moment — but what with the chosen theme, and the peculiar guest assembly, and the stylistic diversity, and elements of her own personality, Hadestown is definitely a 2010 record like no other 2010 record, and 2010 has seen plenty of records.

But bad news first: as brilliant as the idea might sound on paper, I would not say that it has been perfectly realized in the studio. The biggest flaw are the guest vocalists, who mostly just suck at their roles. Mitchell herself plays the role of Eurydice, which inevitably means that she does not get to sing a lot (what with being either dead or undead, but wordless most of the time). Else­where, what we get is:

(a) Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Orpheus — I have no doubt that the guy thought himself capable of getting into such a natural (for him) character, but he has as much personality as a bowl of farina, and if I were Hades and he came knocking at my door, I'd feed him to Cerberus with a relieved sense of 10,000-year satisfaction;

(b) Ani DiFranco as Persephone — look, I respect Ani DiFranco and I understand that, her being the boss of Mitchell's record label and all, Anaïs felt obliged to get her a spot and all, but her raunchy-flapper delivery on ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ is cringeworthy; and she murders (in the bad sense of the word) the old ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, here retitled ʽHow Longʼ — just put on the original version and compare Mitchell's desperate "how long, how long, how long?" with Ani's muffled and confused verse conclusions. She simply does not fit this concept, period;

(c) Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem as Hermes — his moment of glory is on the opening verse of the rowdy drinking song ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ, but, unfortunately, he only manages to come off as a very second-rate Tom Waits. What, was the budget too low to get the real thing? I'm sure Tom wouldn't particularly object to taking part in this, particularly since this kind of pro­ject is right up Kathleen Brennan's alley;

(d) Greg Brown, an Iowan folkie, as Hades — his croaky bass voice is the only one that I have no problems with, but since the idea here is to complain about all of them, I will play up the racial card and ask the naturally pending question: how come they did not invite some grizzled old black bluesman to sing this part? Okay, so John Lee Hooker was already dead by then, but surely there must have been others available. This part is just screaming from some African-American presence — no offence to Greg, who is actually one of the coolest guys on the invitee list.

All these miscastings are bothersome, yet they do not take away from the sheer delight of the story. Individually, each piece is not exactly a revelation, but as they come together and you begin associating the various musical styles with parts of the Orphean myth, we suddenly have a completely new way of looking at the classical Greek tradition — through the prism of 20th century folk culture (rather than rock culture or avantgarde). Thus, ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ becomes the wobbly path of drunken sailors, with gang choruses, banjos, and accordeons; Hades himself, as pictured in ʽHey, Little Songbirdʼ, is associated with a down-on-his-luck salt-of-the-earth person, stuck in some Louisiana shithole or other; The Fates, played by The Haden Triplets, apparently spin their web from some rundown casino in a shady part of town (ʽWhen The Chips Are Downʼ, spicing things up with its lively Cuban rhythms); ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, a song whose relevance has seemingly increased in the Trump era, is a clever attempt at inserting a bit of contemporary political significance — and by now, I suppose, we have all guessed that «Hades­town» and «The Underground» are the United States of America, and Orpheus is a poor Latin immigrant trying to sneak in after his US-born wife... oh, well, that is probably carrying the alle­gory too far. Anyway, the idea of Hades and Cerberus chanting "we build the wall to keep us free" in unison is quite a fresh take on the Greek views on life after death.

The music that accompanies the ideas, as I already said, is not exceptional, but is suitably ambi­tious. Sparse arrangements are rare: more frequently, we have use of strings over acoustic guitars and/or pianos, giving the whole thing a «chamber folk» feel; there are also more experimental bits of music-making, usually in the form of instrumental links (ʽPapersʼ, for instance, is a bass-driven jazzy interlude with dissonant brass and strings and even a brief drum solo; ʽLover's De­sireʼ is one half neo-country and one half French street music), but I suppose that, like most operas, this one, too, is going to be remembered not so much by the stand-alone quality of its instrumental melodies as by how much they reinforce and complete the vocal parts. In this re­spect, the musical score is a total success, and, frankly, none of her previous records suggested that she could pull off something this big.

In all honesty, the work deserves not just a thumbs up, but a far more detailed critical description (which is more than I can say about plenty of other equally pretentious, but not equally self-adequate conceptual pieces); for now, I will simply conclude by saying that, as someone with an old passion for Greek mytho­logy and a big love for creative tinkering with traditional folks of American music, I thoroughly endorse Hadestown — at least as a stimulating symbolist piece, even if nothing here makes me shed bitter tears for the fate of Orpheus. (I mean, getting Justin Vernon, of all people, to make me feel for Orpheus? He's got about as many chances at this as Happy Frog).

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