Over the course of her last two albums, Anais Mitchell has established herself as one of the most alluring singer/songwriters of the last decade and yet remains relatively unknown on these shores. Perhaps 2010’s outstanding “Hadestown”, the 20-track updating of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice may sound a little intimidating to the casual listener but, in reality, Mitchell’s musical vision and a perfectly cast list of contributing luminaries such as Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon and Ben Knox Miller of the Low Anthem made it a thrilling but entirely accessible masterpiece.
Lesser artists may have wilted at the thought of following that up, but Mitchell’s new album “Young Man in America” shortens the tracklisting, pares back the instrumentation and simplifies the themes, in the process imbuing the album with goosebump moments of profound emotional impact. It would be hard to find a better example of lyricism investing potency in the music than some of the distilled imagery of “Young Man…”. When Mitchell sings “My mother gave a mighty shout, opened her legs and let me out, hungry as a prairie dog, young man in America” something in the rawness and primality of the lyric allied with the innocence of Mitchell’s voice creates a shiver of emotional connection with the song that is carried throughout the album. While the record takes time to fully reveal its nuanced heart, when it does so it delivers layers of musical subtlety and emotional depth that make it the best release of 2012 thus far.
Mitchell’s vocal, which has elements of Joanna Newsom’s girlishness but without the opinion-dividing sharp edges, is capable of conveying both the innocence and world weariness demanded by the albums themes. The singer’s pastoral sketches on “Young Man…” encompass aspects of childhood and the nurturing nature of parenthood together with the raw ambition of youth, all beautifully shaped and enhanced by the arrangements’ deceptive folkish simplicity. It’s a rare thing indeed for albums to offer such an intense symbiosis of musicality and poetry while retaining a full-blooded humanity, but this one is an unreserved triumph.
Investigating Anais Mitchell’s back catalogue is an awaiting pleasure all of its own, and a must for anyone with a passing interest in artists from Bob Dylan and Jodi Mitchell through to Bon Iver and Bill Callahan. More importantly, if you only see one more Brighton gig for the remainder of 2012, then you’ll be hard pressed to make a better choice than this one.
The Blind Tiger hosts Anais on 30th May 2012, tickets here.