#3: Anaïs Mitchell – “Hadestown” (2010)

Several times recently, I have found myself in conversation with people who profess not to like poetry. That’s absolutely their prerogative, of course, but it always seems to me so incredibly broad – like saying you don’t like music, or films, or art. It makes me wonder what dreadful experience they’ve had that’s put them off. Did they have a run-in with Wordsworth and assume that was the long and the short of it? Were they expecting to be knocked off their feet with something viscerally profound, and instead got something fourteen lines long that couldn’t help but fall short? What are their opinions on dirty limericks, sarcastic couplets, mighty great storytelling epics in blank verse? How do they feel about “my name is Cow”?

The reason I ask this is that Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell is a “folk opera” concept album, telling the Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Or that’s what I thought until about a week ago when I discovered it had an off-Broadway run last summer. So I guess that makes it a musical? The live version and the studio album seem to have been worked on concurrently. And what intrigues me is that I know some people who say that they like concept albums but can’t stand musicals, and some who love musicals but look askance at concept albums. (For what it’s worth, I’m more often the latter, but have been known to be both.) So what’s the difference between the two – do they overlap? What are we looking for? What are we expecting? What do we want?

And on top of that, of course, is the fact that Anaïs Mitchell has a proper American folk-and-country music voice. It’s very distinctive. Hadestown is full of very distinctive voices, also boasting Justin Vernon (the frontman of Bon Iver) as Orpheus, and Ani DiFranco as Persephone, queen of the underworld. But just as it’s easy to hear “concept album” and think you know what you’re getting, it’s easy to hear “folk” and think the same. Again: what are we expecting?

And besides, for an album that is so focused on the story it’s telling, there’s a fair amount of vocal diversity among the characters, which as far as I’m concerned is both very interesting to listen to, and exactly how it ought to be.

It’s probably no surprise that I loved it. This is an album to listen to in one go, with your headphones in. It vibrated my ribcage. Like all good musical storytelling things, the emotional angles of it crept up on me, and I’m still thinking about them a couple of days later. It feels… I don’t know exactly how to put it, although I’m sure people better versed in this sort of thing have a way of explaining – it feels very cohesive. It feels like it fits together very well, like there’s a clear vision to the whole thing. Hadestown doesn’t sound samey at all, but it does sound like it was written by the same person, with a clear vision of what they want to say. And again, that’s comforting. It feels like a safe pair of hands.

Which means that I get to use it as a springboard for my own thoughts, without fear that I’m going to accidentally ruin anything.

I’ve been thinking this week about strength of character, and holding your nerve, and doubting, and failing. So it seems on some level like an album about the Orpheus myth has come at an opportune moment. This story, this album, is about holding your nerve until the very last moment, and then not holding it any more. In Orpheus’s story, that’s a failing – the way for Orpheus to “win” is to keep looking ahead, to make his way out of the underworld without looking back. And yet there are plenty of other stories in the world about people being brought back from the dead, and the thing they all have in common as far as I can remember is that the person can never come back for long. They’re not meant to stay in the mortal world: they’re often cursed, or out of place, or waste away for good soon afterwards. Isn’t that what a ghost is? And in that light, if Eurydice could never come back and fit in again to the world she’d left, then what’s a lovesick poet to do, but look back that one last time and let her go?

I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five on the Biblical story of Lot:

“And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

This week, I’m thinking about what happens when you care too much and do something more than a little ill-advised. And probably mutilating a perfectly good legend in pursuit of it.

Hadestown is super. This is the occasion, if ever there was one, to be a bit of a Luddite, too – the inside-cover album notes are eminently porable over. I don’t know what I was expecting when I started to listen to it, but I’m glad I did.