Before reviewing the album, I have to admit, Ani Difranco and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who are both major contributors to the project, definitely rake up the most counts on my iTunes top played lists. Bias.
That said however, Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown is a masterful album in its own right, originally beginning in 2006 as a live show that toured New England with a cast of twenty-two performers. The show, and now complete album, is an impressive Americana retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that evokes a feel of Depression-era America and a doomed future in which all desperately seek to preserve their power, freedom, and riches.
Researching the mythical story a bit so I could understand the compelling narration of the album, I found that it is a love story about Orpheus, a poet who swayed Hades with his beautiful music to bring back his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. As I already alluded to, Mitchell’s ambitious, bold, fourth album is a collaborative project, with the lead singer of Bon Iver as Orpheus (my all-time favorite), Ani DiFranco as Persephone (the strong-willed wife of Hades), Greg Brown as Hades ("king of the kingdom of dirt") and Mitchell as Eurydice, the beautiful young woman seduced into Hades' underworld.
"I recognized in the Orpheus character something a lot of artists feel: his heartbreaking optimism," observes Mitchell. "In the underworld, the rules are the rules, you don’t get a dead person back—but Orpheus believes if he can just sing/play/write something beautiful enough, maybe he can do the impossible, move the heart of stone, get through to someone. I've felt that feeling..." And alas, an incredible album is born, complete with human emotion, social commentary, and an incredibly impressive artistic collaboration.
In general, the lovely Vermont singer-songwriter has a unique, eclectic style all her own, but has definitely been influenced by "the earthiness of Shawn Colvin, the child-like bite of Joanna Newsom, and the urban jumpiness of Ani DiFranco." As this reviewer continues, "These elements, as disparate as they might seem, come together as nicely as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg" (Margaret Reges, Allmusic.com). In January 2008, I was actually lucky enough to see Mitchell play shortly after she was taken up by Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records, opening a show for the extraordinary anti-folk goddess herself.
Back to the album, Hadestown is definitely the most creative, inspired folk album I have heard in the past couple years, bringing a fresh perspective to the mythic tradition and timeless themes of power, love and desperation. Listen—to the feature on NPR or buy it—but listen to it all the way through. Even if the Americana style generally doesn’t appeal to you, and I admit it normally doesn’t for me, the inspired and compelling narration, craft, and featured artists on the album come together and truly form something magical.