Metro Weekly

Album Review: Anaïs Mitchell makes her self-titled return

Anaïs Mitchell shakes off the bombast of "Hadestown" for a collection of reflective songs from the Vermont countryside

Anaïs Mitchell -- Photo: Jay Sansone
Anaïs Mitchell — Photo: Jay Sansone

Losing the artist for their art is a cliche as old as show business. For Anaïs Mitchell, the driving force behind the phenomenal Broadway hit Hadestown, abruptly quitting New York for Vermont ahead of the birth of her second child in early 2020 not only gave her the space to reconnect with herself, it gifted the spark that would allow her to deliver the self-titled Anaïs Mitchell (★★★☆☆), her first album of original material in almost a decade.

If you’re familiar with the colorful stories and characters of Hadestown, Mitchell’s prowess as a songwriter and storyteller needs no introduction. For all that Mitchell makes of her desire to tell her story, what really stands out in Anaïs Mitchell is not so much the stories themselves, but the way she pulls out moments in time and pins down the ephemeral feelings that accompany them. Opener “Brooklyn Bridge,” for instance, is slow and romantic, distilling down a moment in time to its most haunting feelings.

Mitchell’s ability to grab hold of these moments is in many ways the surprise highlight of the album. In “Revenant,” she captures a sense of literally revisiting the past as she spins a love letter to her childhood, capturing the dreamy feeling of being in a once-familiar place and leafing through old belongings, describing them in loving detail. The song reads as a litany of sensory memories captured in time and allows her to play to one of her great strengths as a lyricist.

“Backroads” similarly recalls small towns and simpler times, a world that seems fantastical in its simplicity but also one that Mitchell seems keen to rediscover, or indeed recreate for herself. “Watershed” is perhaps the album’s most evocative track, painting a picture of a majestic landscape and the attendant feeling of looking out from a high vantage point and seeing the whole world sprawling out below you.

Anaïs Mitchell also benefits from its instrumentals, which were recorded almost entirely live, at Mitchell’s insistence. The result is a series of songs that sound warm and organic, evoking the abstract sense of simplicity one might associate with life in rural Vermont. As a consequence, however, the album as a whole lags under the lack of variation between its primarily acoustic songs, as gorgeous as its string arrangements are. A notable exception is “On Your Way (Felix Song),” a slightly bouncier number that breaks up some of the monotony of the many light folk ballads.

Anaïs Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell

The similarity from track to track ends up highlighting Mitchell’s lyrics, which are at their most memorable when she is delivering the unfamiliar and unexpected — making observations or honing in on details that someone else could easily have missed. Here again, her focus on the same few subjects causes the album to drag. “Bright Star” finds her at peace in familiar surroundings, but is overshadowed by the more evocative “Revenant,” which immediately follows it and deals with markedly similar subject matter.

“The Words”and “Now You Know” are written in a similarly reflective and confessional style, and the language of her lyrics is poetic and evocative. Aside from a cheerful admission out of left field in “Now You Know,” when she sings, “I think about dying, lying in your arms,” she reveals very little of her inner life beyond the fact of its existence. That Mitchell is a gifted balladeer is not in doubt, but squeezing several of them into the same album with little variation in theme and tone works to Anaïs Mitchell‘s detriment.

There is rarely much to be read into the decision to self-title an album, but for Mitchell the decision carries some weight. Having written for so long “in the voice of other characters, especially with Hadestown,” this album is a chance for her to turn back inward and tell her own story. Storytelling, especially the kind she’s made her name on over the last few years, becomes a very different proposition when you self-consciously make yourself the main character. The reflective state of mind the album finds Mitchell in produces some unexpected and occasionally uneven results, allowing her to show the world a whole different set of strengths.

Anaïs Mitchell is available to purchase and stream. Visit www.anaismitchell.com. Follow the artist on Twitter at @anaismitchell.

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