[16 March 2012]
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”. One perhaps then approaches its successor with an empty diary, a full fridge and a “Don’t Open ‘til Christmas” sign on the front door. Yet with its svelte 11 tracks and comparatively slim 45-minute running time, Young Man in America may appear curiously lowkey by comparison. Believe me, it’s every bit as panoramic in depiction. It’s like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards forever turning his back on that porch with its promise of country comforts and domesticity, back out into the badlands of wild America, where the young man belongs…
Young Man feels initially like you’ve just stepped onto the set of Deadwood—beneath a silvery moon, suitcase in hand and a hatful of dreams. “Wilderland” is the sound of howling winds, a swinging noose, rattlin’ street lamps, eerie violins, faraway flutes and foreboding tribal drums. “Look upon your children wandrin’ in the wilderland”, calls out Mitchell in her deceptively angelic tone. It opens the book with a sense of drama, tension, threatening like a gypsy’s curse…with added wolves. The next 10 tracks unfold short tales worthy of McCarthy, Faulkner or O’Connor, all told in Mitchell’s youthful yet captivating voice and set to some achingly beautiful rustic folk laced with tearful trumpets and serenading strings.
The songs speak of the rise—but usually fall—of the American dreamer, seen through the wide eyes of mostly feisty young males. Their tales are timeless and familiar, echoing hungry-heart heroes from On the Waterfront to Days of Heaven to Rumblefish to Into The Wild. Folks looking for salvation, escape from the chains of expectation, their past or even their own shadow. The title track memorably paints one “Ravenous” young man from a broken home whose idyllic mother was a “shelterer” but daddy “did not give a damn”. As with all of America’s anthems for doomed youth, it’s peppered with poignant, pinsharp imagery: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Its hero swings a defiant fist, proclaiming, “every one will know my name”, but like Tony Montana or Terry Malloy, pride comes before a fall. Through his fading fires stride a New Orleans jazzband marching to another fool’s grave fate. “Let me climb back in”, pines Mitchell.
Yup, America ain’t exactly dressed for no hoedown. The bluegrass blues of “Dyin’ Day” recall Springsteen’s sombre “Ghost of Tom Joad” with its heavy cross of desperation and inescapable fate. The highway is alive tonight, but every day’s “A dyin’ day”. Elsewhere, the new dawn rising of “Coming Down” glows like a sorrowful sugarspun sister of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. The pills and the liquor are fading and reality is slowly creeping over the horizon. The sparse piano and calm vocal gently give way to embracing brass. “I never felt so high”, sighs its happy sad narrator. Luckily for us listeners, its slow melting ache is as magical as it is melancholy. The darkest moment, though, is “Shepherd”. The tune is sweet, the tale not so. About a working farmer whose beloved is heavily laden with child, both devoted to protecting their homestead from the oncoming storm, its tone swiftly turns from “Grim” to “CHRIST, NOOO!” in true Flannery O’Connor style. Let’s just say it doesn’t end with an enchanting picnic with fancy cakes and lashings of lemonade. Based on one of Anaïs’ pa’s own stories it shows those Mitchells aren’t afraid to tug at your heartstrings as much as yank them out like weeds from your rib cage. It’s quietly, bloody terrifying.
But there’s more to America than blackclouds, missing handkerchiefs and gravedigging. On the other side of despair is hope, romance and summer’s kiss. The upbeat “Venus” kicks with the swing of a Steve Earle salvation song and rolls like a rainbow over a Godless sepia sky. The Disney-fried tale of a young heart struck deep by Cupid’s arrow; “She opened her mouth / Birds flew out”. It’s infectious, uplifting and dashed with Cajun lickin’ accordions which all but lift your feet from the ground with their dizzy giddiness. Later, the charming, wistful acoustics of “AnneMarie” finds possibly the same smitten kitten later begging for his boo to forgive him his latest sin. “I’d walk a hundred miles on my knees to see your smile”, it prays. It’s hard not to picture a roguish Tom Waits, one bended knee soaked in a puddle, flatcap grasped tight to chest and heart unashamedly on sleeve.
Mitchell flips the script a few times though, recasting herself as sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, guardian angel or both. The delicate “He Did” floats like a ghostly troubadour, gently berating one prodigal son for forsaking his inarticulate but lovin’ Pa: “Who gave you an empty page to fill?”. The clash of expectations and generations. Later the elegant, pin-sharp “Tailor” spins the yarn of a devoted sweetheart who hangs a lil’ too tight to every word her beau utters: “When he said he was leaving / I took up the violin”. Ultimately she’s left unrequited and unfulfilled, a blank canvas (“Who am I? Who am I?”). The parting “Ships” is similarly bittersweet. Lovers entwine at the docks, the boy dreaming of the day his ship comes in, his girl already shipwrecked. The breezy six strings slip beneath a swell of trumpets and violins, simmering the girl’s rising contempt. “I’m gonna let my hair down when your ship comes in”, she broods defiantly, and the sane world salutes her.
Young Man in America is born from sorrow, suffering, shattered dreams and incendiary youth “waiting on oblivion”, yet it’s one of the most life-affirming musical journeys you’ll have all year. The message is straight, lonesome, sometimes bleak and you may walk away with muddy shoes, but the overall experience is as freshly cathartic and comforting as the first rays of sunshine after a long, bleak winter. It’s also painted with such masterful detail and aching, timeless melody it will haunt you long after the last note has played. This may be a portrait of the Young Man in America but it’s written by the worldly-wise for those youth burning like Kerouac’s desolation angels; mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.