ALBUM REVIEW: Anaïs Mitchell Supplies Poetic Reflection on New Self-Titled Record
The last time Anaïs Mitchell released a new album under her own name was 2012. The years between Young Man in America and her latest self-titled LP, released on Jan. 28, were hardly a creative gap for Mitchell. Her acclaimed musical Hadestown was on its journey to Broadway and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2019.
With both Young Man in America and Hadestown, Mitchell had cast her gaze on the outside world, which was fitting for a socially conscious artist like herself. Her choice to creatively turn inward on Anaïs Mitchell serves as a welcome gift for listeners who crave everyday intimacy, vulnerability, revelation and poetry — the qualities that make up the four-chambered heart of this album.
Mitchell invites us into her world with the hypnotic opening track, "Brooklyn Bridge." It's a song that sounds like snowfall, repeatedly bringing her strong voice down to a hush over a yearning piano and soft horns. Here, Mitchell names her wants: "I wanna be someone / Wanna be one in a million / I wanna be the one you want." The song takes a turn, with Mitchell lyrically spell-casting as she softly repeats over and over, "I want everything I want / everything I want / everything I want." Mitchell sings as though she knows this is an impossible wish but sees the value in wishing anyway.
Poems and songs are often sisters on a writer's family tree, but under some artists' creation, they are not seperate things. Mitchell is one such artist, and she reminds us of this talent on the album's second track, "Bright Star." She wraps her voice around the words: "Bright star / I have drunk the wine of ages / In the company of strangers / We have sung in tongues of angels / And then stumbled on the pavemеnt / And I understood my place then / And my purposе in relation / To the young and ancient night."
Perhaps it's Mitchell's own lyrics that describe the songs on this album best. These ten tracks are those that belong to "the young and ancient night."
"On Your Way (Felix Song)" is the album's energetic high point. It's a dynamic tribute to the singer's late friend and fellow musician, which relishes in the journey of being music-makers, rather than the destination. Fittingly, the presence of Mitchell's band comes through the strongest here. While the song holds room for grief with lines like "You wouldn't want me haunted by / The song we never got to write," the song's lasting impression is a sense of determined joy. Mitchell closes the track by proclaiming, "I'm going where the take is going / No regrets and no mistakes / You get one take."
While it may not be fitting to say that such a finely-tuned album has highlights— each song is so obviously needed here — "Backroads" and "Little Big Girl" make strong cases for earning the title. The two songs follow each other, anchoring the second half of the album.
"Backroads" is a wonderfully starlit rumination on young love and heartbreak. What makes it unique is Mitchell's ability to bring us into the immediacy of the moment (Cliché on the radio / Speaking straight to my soul / Baby, baby please don't go) and then add in a dose of perspective that is never available to us when the heartache is actually happening. In a quieter moment, she sings, "You've got mistakes to make / You got miles, and miles, and miles to go / Backroads."
"Little Big Girl" also has something to say about youth — or rather, the absence of it. Mitchell takes on the difficulties of aging and vulnerability head on in lyrics that oscillate between feeling like a stream of consciousness and a mother-daughter conversation. The song's full power comes into fruition at the bridge, when Mitchell's voice is both pleading and exasperated. She sings, "Hold on a minute, mom / Tell me why / How come I feel so small sometimes? / I thought by now I'd have it all figured out / Well I don't / How come you never told me?"
The thirty-two minute album ends on a delicate piano ballad, "Watershed." Full of a sense of hope that's drawn from the natural world and one's own spirit, the track is Mitchell's insistence that there is value in being a seeker.
Once again, she deals in poetry. In the process, she reveals the place she's been singing from all along on this album: "And the heaven you seek is not separate / From the heart that speaks / When your cheeks are wet."
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