From operas by Monterverdi, Glück, and Offenbach, to a film by Cocteau and a play by Tennessee Williams, to (one half of) a record by Nick Cave, the myth of Orpheus has provided inspiration for artists, writers, and musicians across the centuries. Anaïs Mitchell’s latest album Hadestown thus situates itself in a venerable cultural tradition, spinning an ambitious 20-track song-cycle—or self-styled “folk opera”—out of the myth.
Alongside arranger Michael Chorney and director Ben T. Matchstick, Mitchell originally developed Hadestown for the stage: the work was performed by Mitchell and a revolving crew of musicians in a tour across New England. For the album version, however, Mitchell and producer Todd Sickafoose have opted for some deluxe casting, with Ani DiFranco taking on the role of Perspehone, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Orpheus, Greg Brown as Hades, The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller as Hermes, and the Haden Triplets (Tanya, Petra, and Rachel) as The Fates—not forgetting Mitchell herself as Eurydice, of course. The results are incredibly good: With Hadestown, Mitchell and her collaborators have crafted an Americana classic that doesn’t require a Classics degree to appreciate.
Hadestown follows the structure of the Orpheus myth closely, while providing a fresh, novel framework for it. The album’s underworld is, in Mitchell’s phrase, “an exploitative company town” in an epoch evocative of Depression-era America. Here, Orpheus wields a banjo not a lyre, while Hades is a “sadistic, wall-building boss king” whose wife Persephone “moonlights as the proprietress of a Speakeasy”. The context informs the musical approach, or vice versa, which moves seductively through folk forms: blues, jazz, ragtime, swing. The accomplished band includes Sickafoose, Rob Burger, Jim Black, Josh Roseman, Nate Wooley, Marika Hughes, and Tanya Kalmanovich, amongst others.
The arrangements are stylish, Mitchell’s lyrics poetic yet direct, the melodies fresh and inspired, and Hadestown flows elegantly from tender lament to jazzy strut to ramshackle roots rock. Issues of poverty, love, power, oppression, and the poet as potential threat to the status quo emerge gracefully; the album wears both its erudition and its ambition very lightly. The record opens with the beguiling duet “Wedding Song”, which places the central love story in context. On the track, Mitchell’s Eurydice relates the realities of the “hard times” in which the couple find themselves, while Vernon’s Orpheus speaks of the transcendence offered by music. Other highlights include the chilling seduction of “Hey Little Songbird”, on which Eurydice succumbs to Hades, and Hades’ extraordinary call-and-response indoctrination of his worker-citizens on “Why We Build The Wall”. Persephone’s swinging “Our Lady of the Underground” and Eurydice’s spare, regretful “Flowers” are two other standouts, while the closing number “I Raise My Cup to Him” is a lament for Orpheus, which becomes, at last, a universal benediction.
Along with the intelligent use of the myth, the central pleasure of Hadestown is the distinctive qualities that the vocalists bring to the material. Mitchell’s girlish, lyrical delivery, Vernon’s hushed intensity, Brown’s imposing rumble, DiFranco’s funky sensuality, Miller’s rasp, and the Haden Triplets’ spry interventions all combine to make the album into a tapestry of perceptions and perspectives, a musical collage. Rich, rewarding, moving, and beautiful, this is a wonderful record.