For the first time, I’m listening to an album I’ve never heard before, by an artist entirely unfamiliar to me. The Mookbarks piece remarks that there are “people who say that they like concept albums but can’t stand musicals, and some who love musicals but look askance at concept albums” and I’m firmly in the former category. I have not been, and probably will not go, to see La La Land. Actually, I’m not sure my problem is with the concept of musicals – at least as an auditory experience so much as the fact that many of them sound to me like the musical equivalent of painting only in bright primary colours, as coming from the world of the variety show. Musical films are another matter. I was amused to hear on Wittertainment last week that the film critic James King, like me, has always struggled to get past the question of why the characters keep bursting into song. Which is why almost the only musical I’ve ever been able to watch was the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling, even if it does suffer a little from the fact that most of the cast couldn’t sing…
And the other term used to describe it was “folk opera”, specifically, a folk-opera version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and my relationship with folk is, um, mixed. On the one hand, I rather like quite a lot of what could be described as folk-rock, but on the other, I can’t help finding folk music, especially of the local variety, rather staid and worthy. Was this going to be the kind of folk music that makes up a significant proportion of the anachronism that is my record collection, or am I going to have the sort of Scottish folk music that I’ve heard too much of and cannot get remotely excited by. Middle class, twenty first century types singing about the fantasy of being crofters or fishermen.
So I hit play and…it was more or less instantly apparent that I was in safe hands. The album’s sound is an intriguing melding of much of what has been interesting about American acoustic music of the last ten or fifteen years. A sort of Joanna Newsom meets Sufjan Stevens with a strong dose of The Low Anthem thrown in… And Justin Vernon (not using his ‘stage name’, Bon Iver, here) singing the part of Orpheus.
There’s a well chosen mix of vocalists to ‘play’ the different parts: Singer Greg Brown does a very good impersonation of Tom Waits as Hades; Anais Mitchell herself is Eurydice and sounds like a melding of Joanna Newsom and Dolly Parton; her record-label boss Ani Di Franco turns up as Persephone, playing her as a jazz diva, while Ben Knox Miller from the aforementioned Low Anthem is Hermes and the Haden Triplets are wonderful as the fates.
I can’t help thinking that the limitations of my brain’s ability to parse the spoken word meant I was probably missing much of the story-telling aspect of the record (I do wonder if the fact that I typically mishear every second or third word might lie behind my preference for abstract song lyrics over traditional story telling) but I can just about make out that it is a re-telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in an approximation of depression-era America, with Hades the boss of a kind of underworld workhouse that seems as if it could have come out of a Dickens novel (or maybe it’s just that I was reading Hard Times while listening). I’m assuming that Anais Mitchell et al were not invited to play Donald Trump’s inauguration, but ‘Why We Build The Wall‘ does sound suddenly rather prescient and topical. Come to that, given that this record was written before the financial crash, the setting of a modern day depression-era USA also feels very of the moment. So I suppose, in a way, for all that I couldn’t quite follow the narrative of the story, I did get an impression of what was happening, and let’s face it, it’s Orpheus and Eurydice, you don’t have to hear every word to know that it doesn’t end well. Justin Vernon has a voice well suited to the channelling of despair.
For all that I struggle to hear song lyrics properly, I did particularly appreciate If Its True, which might just have supplanted Re:Stacks in that rather niche category of: my favourite Bon Iver song using gambling as a metaphor for life. Or in this case, for the notion of a system stacked against the little man:
The ones who tell the lies
Are the solemnest to swear
And the ones who load the dice
Always say the toss is fair
And the ones who deal the cards
Are the ones who take the tricks
With their hands over their hearts
While we play the game they fix
I only heard this record for the first time four days ago, so as yet, I really can’t say whether it will in time become one of my all-time favourite albums, or whether instead it will simply be one of the much greater number of records that I played incessantly for a short period of time before moving on to something new, but if a part of the point of all this is to hear music that I wouldn’t otherwise ever have been aware of. Final in passing comment: Make sure you search out the Anais Mitchell album, and not the soundtrack for the later musical which to my ears at least, loses much of the subtlety and musical dexterity of the original.
Highlights: Wait for Me, Why We Build The Wall, If It’s True.