Anaïs Mitchell has wrestled her life back from the clutches of musical theatre (Hadestown, a Broadway and London musical that spun out of her 2010 concept album based on a Grecian myth) to deliver this self-titled LP, her first new solo album in a decade. Anaïs Mitchell is Mitchell’s eighth album (not including the 2017 and 2019 cast recordings for Hadestown), her last being 2014’s xoa, a selection of new songs and re-recorded tracks from Mitchell’s back catalogue.
The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly offered Mitchell an opportunity to focus on her own music, and the focus is personal in nature, inspired by real people and events. “On Your Way (Felix Song)” was written for singer-songwriter/producer Edward “Felix” McTeigue, who died unexpectedly in 2020; it’s a great song, evoking a friendship with a fellow musician, from early days struggling at shows, to later recording with her friend, tape rolling “no regrets and no mistakes/you get one take”. It’s affecting through its description of McTeigue (“the way you looked under the lights/and later on the street outside/you always had those laughing eyes/…the sight of you on a New York night/you didn’t like to say goodbye”). Mitchell signs off having learnt from her pal, telling us that “tonight my tape is rolling/I’m going where the take is going”.
“On Your Way (Felix Song)” is romantic by nature, and other songs on the album take a similar approach. “Brooklyn Bridge” tells of the thrill in approaching Manhattan by taxi, “you and me in the backseat/finally got you by my side/riding high at the end of the night”, but with the stagey ambition of wanting to “be someone/wanna be one in a million”. “Backroads” is less musical romance and more rock romance (the self-admission of “cliché on the radio/speaking straight to my soul”), a Springsteen-like epic of small town stars, daredevils and angels, with shifts in gear to match the winding drive. In four concise lines Mitchell takes a witty dig at a racist cop, and makes the point that the course of our lives can depend on our environment (“somebody thought it didn’t look right/might as well have said he didn’t look white/might’ve rode all night and gone far/had he been ridin’ in a different car”). The dramatic performance ensures this is one of the essential tracks on the album.
Other key songs are single “Bright Star”, a roaming trip of longing and reflection about life and the world which manages to convey a quiet sense of adventure, and “Little Big Girl” which admirably stands up to male expectations, turning the male gaze back, not letting him “have his way instead of saying what you want”.
The album was produced by Mitchell’s Bonny Light Horseman bandmate Josh Kaufman, and Kaufman also adds (gulp) guitar, bass, mandolin, piano, organ, synthesizer, harmonium and harmonica. There are a host of other players including Mitchell and The National’s Aaron Dessner on guitar, Thomas Bartlett on piano, Mellotron and keyboards, Alex Sopp on flute, Nadia Sirota on viola, Nathan Schram on violin, JT Bates on drums and percussion and Michael Lewis on bass, saxophone, clarinet and synthesizer. Some of this group, namely Bartlett, Dessner, Bates and Kaufman, also played on Taylor Swift’s 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore, and this perhaps shows through the proficient backing.
Mitchell has a long standing association with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, having toured, performed and recorded together. Most recently Mitchell joined him and Aaron and Bryce Dessner for three songs on Big Red Machine’s 2021 album How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? Mitchell has also participated in a song-a-day experiment, 37d03d, a writers’ collective established with Vernon and the Dessners; included here is “The Revenant” which came from that experience, and was written in an hour by Mitchell. It’s a gentle song about our ancestry and getting older, with some appealing woodwind playing.
Mitchell is an impressive songwriter, and this is on evidence here. “Now You Know” organises its structure through the narrator’s wandering mind, in a sequence of connected thoughts. A few of the songs seem influenced by pandemic times; the ambition of the acoustic “Real World” is to live in a physical world of birds, grass, clouds and pastures. The birds are there again in “The Words”, as Mitchell admits sometimes her mind is somewhere else instead of in the present. “Watershed” also has a concern with nature, with rivers and mountains providing the backdrop for worldly ambition.
Mitchell’s vocals are sweet and mellifluous throughout, and the songs and performances have a rich variety. Although there are ten songs, the album whizzes by all too quickly; “Real World” is under two minutes, and the songs do not outstay their welcome. The album leaves the listener hoping for more; as a return to solo duties, it’s undoubtedly an enjoyable and engaging experience.
Note: album photography is by Wilco’s Jay Sansone.
Release Date: 28 JAN 2022