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Anais Mitchell: Hadestown

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

I can’t remember when I first heard Anais Mitchell. A few years ago, to be sure, when I stumbled across that wonderful little album of Child Ballads she made with Jefferson Hamer. Americans singing the traditional English canon, better and clearer than any English person I’d ever heard. I loved it, but I stopped there.

I’d googled her, of course. And I knew she’d done this thing called Hadestown, which appeared to be some sort of folk opera based on the classics. Neither of which was promising, to me. So I threw it onto the Amazon wish list and forgot about it. 

At least until I once again stumbled across Anais, in a video clip with Chris Thile, performing a song called Why We Built the Wall. Which sounded like it was specifically aimed at Trump but turned out to be several years old, part of the Hadestown thing. It blew me away, but when I looked again at Hadestown I saw that it wasn’t Anais singing it on the album, so I left it on the wish list and forgot about it again.

Then, a few months later I stumbled across it again, when I saw an announcement that the National Theatre was about to put on the show. So I had an idle curious moment and finally bought the album. 

I dunno what I was expecting. Some kind of half-baked soundtrack record, I suppose. They’re usually not very satisfying without the visuals: the music’s supposed to help you navigate the plot, not stand on its own. Hadestown has a plot (Orpheus and Euridyce, no less) but you don’t need the story to enjoy it. It’s a completely original thing that swerves joyously through the musical references: there are echoes of Dixieland jazz and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and Ruben Gonzales, held together by a series of terrific vocal performances. Ani DiFranco is all sinister good time gal as Persephone, Greg Brown is as impossibly deep and dark as you might imagine Hades to be, and Anais Mitchell herself is tender and touching as Eurydice. And there’s much more besides.

I must have listened to it half a dozen times, just riding the music, before I paid attention to the story. But it works, despite my instinctive aversion to anything involving Greek mythology - and unlike any show or soundtrack album I’ve ever owned, I find myself paying attention all the way through. Even the two musical interludes, though I might skip past them after a while. Give me the vocals, every time. 

And now… give me the show. Different cast, of course, but I’m watching the National’s website to catch tickets as soon as they go on sale. It’ll be the first stage production I’ve ever seen where I know the music inside out before I sit down. 

Next time I'll pay attention a bit earlier. Anais Mitchell is one helluva songwriter.

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