"Young Man in America is the follow-up to Anaïs Mitchell's critically beloved folk opera Hadestown (RBRCD70) which received sensational reviews and landed Mitchell on numerous `Best of 2010' lists in both the national and international press.
Switching gears, Mitchell returns here to a more traditional solo record, but those familiar with Hadestown will hear its overtones in Young Man. It's an epic, sprawling tale with characters leaping from the verses as they would from the pages of a novel. As a songwriter, Mitchell takes on the voices of different characters, men as well as women. Sometimes these voices speak in ornate, old-fashioned tongues - the language of British Isles balladry and the Old Testament.
Mitchell once again enlisted the skills of Hadestown producer Todd Sickafoose. Taking the reins as producer/arranger of Young Man in America, Sickafoose assembled some of Brooklyn's most sought-after rock and experimental jazz players - guitarist Adam Levy,violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Andrew Borger to name but a few. Chris Thile appears on mandolin as well as alongside songwriters Jefferson Hamer and Rachel Ries in a harmonic chorus. Michael Chorney, the man behind Hadestown's remarkable score and the producer of Mitchell's previous albums (2007's The Brightness and 2004's Hymns for the Exiled) makes a guest appearance on guitar. Together they
create a sound more reminiscent of a `'70s rock record than that of a traditional singersongwriter.
"Look upon your children," Anaïs Mitchell sings on Young Man in America’s opening song; "Wandrin’ in the wilderland / Look upon your children / Wandrin’ in the woods." For her follow-up to 2010’s stunning folk-opera Hadestown she tones down the scale a little yet offers something equally startling: a modern folk record that snaps and sparkles with energy, daring to take on some formidable themes in the process. It is America itself she addresses in that first song; a country that is starting to crumble and a population that has lost its way.
While the Young Man of its title receives top billing, the LP is fleshed out by a cast of lovers, tailors, shepherds and poets, all rendered contemporary and believable in spite of the old-fashioned language they are often drawn in. The restless, desperate existence of its protagonist serves to equate our modern times and misplaced sense of duty (of materialism, broadly) with the individual crises these characters suffer. Mothers and fathers – or their absence, more specifically – figure heavily, not least on album centrepiece Shepherd, where Mitchell weaves a tragedy over the sunniest of chord patterns.
Mitchell cites her own father as a major inspiration (indeed, it is his face that adorns the cover), and the song itself is based on the prologue of a novel he wrote some 30 years ago, when he was around the same age she is now. Mitchell has noted the inherent strangeness of a life where you’re no longer being parented but not yet a parent yourself, a relatively modern phenomenon that, along with the kind of gaudy excess characters from Jay Gatsby to Dorian Gray have struggled with, considerably touches the sense of rootlessness on display here.
It is her ability to transpose these themes onto such intimate situations that makes this LP so remarkable; that, and the fact that she is as adept a collaborator as she is chronicler. Once more enlisting Todd Sickafoose on production duties, the album is instrumentally lean and taut, and on devastating piano-ballad Coming Down genuinely breathtaking. Though her acoustic guitar steers proceedings, crackles of distortion, woodwind and expertly-deployed strings all make their presence felt, particularly on grand finale Ships.
A fierce, melodic affirmation of sadness and grief, love and lust, attachments formed both strong and precarious, Young Man in America is a marvel of a record from start to finish.
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