Last night, while driving home, I came across a radio report of a local artist who had embarked on a recent musical concept project, Anais Mitchell. Mitchell is a Vermont artist who’s gained quite a name for herself with her unique voice and music within the state, and it seems as though this album is going to be a good one to launch her to quite a bit more attention.
The project, entitled Hadestown, is a retelling of the story of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth from Greek stories. The original story has to do with the death of Eurydice, and distraught, Orpheus travels to Hades to win her release, singing so mournfully that they release her, but with a condition: she must follow him out from the underworld, but if he turns to look at her, she will vanish.
In this retelling, Mitchell has taken the story and reworked it. Set in a ‘world of poverty’, she sets up a sort of feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which Orpheus is a poet and musician, and Eurydice his unhappy wife. Coming to the entrance of Hadestown, she’s seduced and whisked away by Hades, the town’s company boss, and he travels to Hadestown to win her release, largely following some of the major elements of the original myth.
What has come together is a facinating musical project, combined with a wonderful, complex and challenging story. Originally begun in 2006 as a stage production put on by Mitchell and Bread and Puppet veteran Ben Matchstick, the entire thing has been re-worked for an album, titled Hadestown. Characters are sung by an impressive cast of characters, including wonderful performances from Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver as Orpheus, Mitchell as Eurydice , Greg Brown as Hades, Ben Knox Miller as Hermes, The Haden Triplets as the Furies and Ani DiFranco as Persephone. What made me really sit up was Vernon’s participation – his album For Emma, Forever Ago, is one of my absolute favorite works in the past decade, and will likely remain a classic in folk music. The rest of the cast, however, works wonderfully, and the album comes together as a rich and diverse group ensemble that pushes the story forward far better than if any single singer had attempted it.
Hadestown is a concept project with a high bar to hit: another band has accomplished similar things, The Decemberists, with their albums The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, which tell a complete story over all, or most of the album. The Crane Wife includes a couple of myths that are incredibly similar to what’s said in the Hadestown album, and it goes to show the power and widespread nature of common stories around the globe. On an album level, this is extraordinary, and where it leaves an album a bit harder to sell in the digital market of single songs, this album is sure to do well in Vermont with Mitchell’s fan base, especially when the album stands out with this level of quality, the singers involved and the coverage that it’s been receiving.
On one level, this album is highly appealing simply because any album that’s marketed as a sort of folk-opera, post-apocalyptic retelling of Greek myth just sounds too awesome to pass up. I was a very big fan of The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, because of the overarching storyline and complex storyline that wove its way through the album, not to mention bringing in other artists to sing different parts. It elevates music to theater, telling a fantastic story that really stands out by going to the roots of what makes things interesting: characters, motivations and conflict. Hadestown does this remarkably, setting characters and story into motion. The characters themselves are ‘cast’ brilliantly, and often, almost outshine Mitchell at her own game, particularly Vernon and Brown with their respective characters
Moreover, it’s an interesting story, firmly within the realm of speculative fiction that combines the best of several worlds: the roots of Greek tragedy, modern day relevance, grim futures and characters that significantly add onto the plot of the album by their own actions. This album is fantastic on all levels: interesting, thoughtful, subtle, and entertaining.