Folk songstress Anaïs Mitchell weaves emotional stories throughout her albums, tales that convey the singer’s dark romanticism, despite the breathless innocence of her voice. The disparity between her vocals and her lyrics endows Mitchell’s compositions with a profound resonance.
Mitchell’s latest album, her fifth to date, focuses on the complexities confronting America, and those at the onset of adulthood. Entitled Young Man in America, the album is poised to become her breakout achievement, a particularly prescient compilation of songs addressing the existential crises faced by many of her peers in a post-recession world, backed by acoustic guitar, solitary piano notes and modest percussion. That’s not to say that this album is bleak, but rather that it commits to a somber and contemplative exploration of the hopes and fears, regrets and resilience of a certain generation faced with navigating exceptionally unforgiving terrain.
At 31 years old, Mitchell’s prose gives the impression of maternal wisdom, but her sound, her look and her energy are that of an eternal naïf. Raised on a sheep farm in rural Vermont, Mitchell studied politics at a nearby college where her father, a novelist and screenwriter, holds a faculty position. For Young Man in America, Mitchell derived inspiration from her father’s legacy (his photo as a young man also graces the album cover), with the album’s title track referencing a prologue he penned for a novel during a similar stage in his life. Storytelling is central to Mitchell’s music and she views songwriting as a narrative vehicle. In Young Man, these stories are emotionally driven, born of the singer’s reflections on her father’s early life, her own coming of age and the transitional moments that propel us away from our assumed inheritance and into the untethered void of adulthood.
Mitchell also weaves mythological and biblical characters throughout the album, threading meta-narratives with a fictional portrait of her envisioned young man, an ambitious striver with ill-fated priorities. Her 2010 release, Hadestown, comprised of an epic folk opera appropriated from the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recontextualized in an America shrouded by economic depression. A number of notable musicians lent their talents to Hadestown, including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Ani DiFranco. The album attracted sweeping critical praise and was included on Best of 2010 lists by The Guardian, The Observer and The Sunday Times, solidifying Mitchell’s cult-icon status among independent recording artists.
Following their Grammy wins for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album, Bon Iver recently covered Mitchell’s song “Coming Down” on an Australian radio show in an act of creative solidarity. Frontman Justin Vernon offered a simple introduction to Mitchell, explaining that, “she became a friend of ours because we worshipped her music.”
On stage, Mitchell radiates an easy confidence that’s offset by her lithe beauty, which she downplays in comfy attire, a tomboyish kind of sexual energy that vacillates between adorable sweetness and irreverent cool. Her image, if you could call it that, is not at all contrived; it’s merely the product of her Vermont upbringing and a general concern for things more pressing than appearance.
She’s been a frequent guest on NPR platforms such as Mountain Stage and World Cafe, where she’s been compared to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Her voice carries a sorrowful beauty that’s unquestionably similar to Cohen, while her lyrics certainly articulate the political urgency of Dylan’s prose, but Mitchell is forging her own identity. Amid the ruin and decay that threatens to consume America, Mitchell and her young man in America ultimately remind us that, though the future’s uncertain, others have made the same journey before us and, most likely, we won’t be the last.