You know how every once in a while an artist comes along that becomes your own little secret. Well, for the past two years (ever since I picked up Hadestown, Anais Mitchell’s compelling and original ‘folk opera’ based on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld yet set in depression era USA and featuring a host of guest vocalists) she has been mine. With the release of Young Man In America this Spring, I was expecting that situation to change. The British newspapers gave it glowing reviews and there has been some enthusiastic chat about it over on the Metacricket forum (which is where I first heard of her), but since that initial burst of interest there has been precious little coverage of what sounds to me like another bona-fide classic. Crucially, and somewhat bemusingly, Pitchfork seem to be avoiding her, which is great as far as I am concerned as she will be much more likely to remain ‘mine’ for a little longer whilst the behemoth of internet music reviewing remains dis-interested or unaware. Not so sure Anais herself will be so pleased with the situation as it is though.
Having said that, Young Man in America sounds like yet another record that has been made with scant consideration for the audience. This is a tough listen, confessional at times and full of thought provoking imagery and, particularly in the case of the ultra beautiful Shepard, harrowing tales that pull no punches (although you can avoid the tale completely by just listening to the snare drum…as Nick did). To compound matters, there is barely a chorus in sight – only the sprightly Venus offers anything approaching a major chord progression – and the instrumentation throughout does the last thing you would expect it to. In fact, the more I listen to penultimate track You Are Forgiven, the more I am astonished by the instrumentation in the last minute and a half of the song as horns and guitar interweave their magic by playing only the briefest of single notes and then disappearing from sight, only to resurface seconds later in an equally ephemeral form. The amazing thing is that each of these singles notes sound like they have been lifted out of a solo that has been discarded from the album, so that when the notes appear, you can almost hear the solo erupting in your own mind. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone do that before.
As it’s only early days, my view of Young Man In America is evolving with each listen and songs are constantly jockeying for places in my affection. At the moment, the title track (which is more-or-less an extended mirror of the opener Wilderland) holds me spellbound, especially when Mitchell pulls, out of nowhere, a melody line that is a ringer for Joanna Newsom, and then lets it go, never to be repeated. The restraint shown throughout this album is remarkable and there are wonderful flourishes all over the place – the dark minor chord that appears in the otherwise lilting and sweet Annmarie (the song would feel completely different without it); the second half of the devastating Tailor where the narrator loses their partner and then their identity and the song alters to match that erosion of confidence; the ebb and flow of the epic Ships as it builds from a simple beginning into something complex and astonishing. This is an album full of grace, made by an artist of rare talent, and if there was any justice in the world she would cease to be my own little secret pretty damn soon. And if that means there will be further Anais Mitchell albums to come, I’d be pretty happy to share her!
Update: Pitchfork has finally got around to reviewing YMiA. I was going to do a ‘Southall’ and rant on about how ludicrous it is to rate an album on a hundred point scale, especially when the review itself seems to contradict the rating…but to be honest, life’s too short, and Nick will probably do it for me at some point soon anyway.
Nick listened: As Tom suggested, I somehow managed, despite him making us promise to listen in silence to track nine before he even pressed play, to not take in any of the words of this. Partly this is because I don’t generally pay all that much attention to words anyway; partly it’s because listening in a group is an odd thing to do; and partly it’s because Anais Mitchell’s vocals are pitched at a level somewhere around that of Joanna Newsom, which is one I have difficulty ‘focussing’ on, as it were. But mostly, as intimated, it’s because I was caught up listening to the music, the ebb and flow, the instrumentation, and the enormous cavernous spaces inbetween. At points it reminded me of Gillian Welch, or Mark Hollis’ solo album (without the jazz thing, perhaps), a kind of sand-blasted outsider country, minimalist, considered, and affecting. I’d like to listen to it again, sans company.
Rob listened: ‘Metacricket’? *googles* Ah… Metacricket…
This was beautiful. Tom has been banging on about ‘Hadestown’ for a couple of years now but it sounds like rather a lot to get ones ears and head around. ‘Young Man In America’ meanwhile was entrancing. Intimate, complex without being impenetrable, it progressed like beautiful machine operating in a way you coud only understand one small movement at a time. One of the best things i’ve heard at the Club.
Graham listened: Magical, dramatic and absorbing, “simples!”. Reminded me of Stevie Nicks at times on some of the some of the dreamier late 70’s Fleetwood Mac.