Mitchell’s first solo work since Hadestown is a warm, lingering look into the past.
Hadestown has ruled the last decade of Anaïs Mitchell’s career, and with good reason. The hit musical turned a once uber-indie folk artist into a name that both music and theatre nerds recognize. Hadestown, a jazzy retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth (based off of Mitchell’s folk-opera album of the same name) won eight out of 14 Tonys in 2019, with Mitchell winning Best Original Score. It’s no surprise, then, that Mitchell’s name has become synonymous with a project she has invested so much in, but her newest record turns her focus in a different direction, meditating instead on the power of memory.
On the whole, Anaïs Mitchell is a quiet, low-key album with a deeply introspective — but warm — tone. In an interview with NPR, Mitchell referred to the record as “an escape pod” from her Broadway life, but it’s more than that. There are no worries of a fraught political climate or a global pandemic here; with its timeless atmosphere, it could be a work from our present or from seven years in the past. Rather, everything is slow and still, like a calm June evening. Josh Kaufman’s warm production suits and supplements Mitchell’s voice beautifully, but never overshadows her melodies and songwriting.
Lyrically, the album is a collage of memories: of a city she left (“Brooklyn Bridge”), of a fellow songwriter she loved (“On Your Way,” dedicated to Felix McTeigue), and of endless youthful nights driving around town (“Backroads”). Mitchell never gets too over-steeped in nostalgia for the good old days, though; in “Backroads” she sings, “different cop on the same night / stopped a kid about a tail light / somebody thought it didn’t look right / might as well have said he didn’t look white,” an older and wiser reflection on a world larger than her own. Similarly, on “Little Big Girl,” a track about a woman aging while she still feels as helpless as a kid, she examines how girls are socialized to “let him have his way instead of saying what you want,” the price of growing up in a world that still largely caters to men.
For all the power of those musings, there are a couple weak spots on the album; “Now You Know” is a stream-of-conscious confession to a lover about all the thoughts racing through her head, but “when we make love, I think about children / and I think about dying, lying in your arms” scans a bit melodramatic given the album’s general lyrical temperament. Likewise “The Real World” feels more like a preachy parent telling a kid to put down their phone and to absorb what’s around them — which isn’t a bad sentiment, but one that’s certainly not as elegant as what’s found on the rest of the record. Still, such moments remain relatively brief and quickly breeze by, and at just over half an hour, Anaïs Mitchell is an easily digestible album that still pleases upon repeat listens. It’s a lovely piece of art to wade through, a pleasant excuse to momentarily leave your life behind and traipse through someone else’s.
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2022 | Part 1.