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Albums You’ve Never Heard Of: ‘Hadestown’

Lizzy Schroff | Friday, November 2, 2012

I believe that the greatest musical gems are found precisely when you are not looking for them. Whether we’re browsing the Internet, flipping through boxes of old vinyl or ambling down less-traveled roads with the radio blaring, unexpected pieces of harmony weave their way into our lives. At that particular moment we may not recognize their beauty, but a few more listens or random stumbling-upons cement these songs, albums and artists into our musical histories.
One such gem that will forever hold a place in my mind is Anaïs Mitchell. I remember exactly what I was doing the first time I heard one of her songs. It was Easter break of my junior year. I had opted to stay on campus but was feeling rather bored and lonely after the first day. On a whim, I decided to see “Big Miracle” at Cinemark Movies 6 in Mishawaka because I’m a college student and I don’t want to pay eight bucks to see a movie. I was tuned in to 91.1 The Globe radio (Goshen College’s radio station, which is fantastic, by the way) and Mitchell’s song “Venus” came on. I was taken with the delightful folkiness, from the serenading accordion to the rhythmic guitars, and the expressive, girlish intonation of Mitchell’s voice. I jotted down some lyrics so I could revisit the song back at my room.
For some reason or another, I had difficulty finding the song. Google left me cold. A few months later, I was able to locate it and fell in love with her latest album “Young Man In America.” However, I’m not writing this article to talk about “Young Man in America.” I’m here to tell you about her previous album. An album that despite its being listed DIRECTLY BELOW “Young Man” on Spotify, I didn’t listen to it until I had nonchalantly let “Young Man” play through into the album. That album is her 2010 release “Hadestown.”
From the first song, I knew “Hadestown” was something special. The album is a folk opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Eurydice. The cast of characters is portrayed in song by a powerhouse bunch of guest artists – Anaïs Mitchell as Eurydice, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as Orpheus, Ani Difranco as Persephone, Greg Brown as Hades, Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem as Hermes and Petra, Rachel, and Tanya Haden as the Fates. The setting is a poverty-stricken America which has Eurydice (newly wed to Orpheus), apprehensive about an unstable future. She is enticed by Hades to join him in the Underworld where no one goes hungry and life is fine. With the encouragement of the Fates, Eurydice accepts Hades’ offer and joins him, but soon comes to regret leaving Orpheus. Orpheus, with directions provided by Hermes, travels to the underworld to bring back Eurydice. He laments his wife’s disappearance so poignantly that Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, convinces Hades to let Eurydice return with Orpheus. Hades agrees on one condition – Orpheus must walk ahead of Eurydice and not turn back to look at her until they have both walked out of the underworld. However, Orpheus’ doubt gets the better of him and he looks back, causing Eurydice to return back to the underworld forever.
Each artist brilliantly animates his or her character, absorbing the listener into the unfolding drama. Justin Vernon’s ethereal, pining vocals bring to life the devotion of Orpheus to Eurydice and the sorrow felt in her parting. Ben Knox Miller’s raspy, soulful voice evokes an obliging, vagabond Hermes. Greg Brown’s deep bass vocals make for an eerie, powerful Hades. Ani Difranco (a huge influence for Mitchell) portrays a captivating Persephone who, though loyal to Hades, also has a soft spot for the fated lovers. The Haden sisters’ seamless, beautiful harmonies as the Fates are effectively woven throughout the story. And Anaïs Mitchell’s unique, girlish voice epitomizes the naïve, innocent Eurydice who caves to the pangs of hunger and poverty.
The score, arranged by Michael Chorney, features an orchestra of folk instruments ranging from acoustic guitar and fiddle to harmonica and trombone for a touch of New Orleans jazz flair. The songs include upbeat, toe-tapping numbers such as “Way Down Hadestown” (I dare you to sit still for this one) and “When the Chips Are Down,” more traditional folk tunes like “Wedding Song” and “Why We Build the Wall,” and balladic melodies such as “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” and “How Long.” Anaïs Mitchell’s narrative lyrics beautifully convey the struggles of the characters – very human struggles with the temptation of guaranteed security and luxury over a life of poverty with one’s true love. The listener feels the joys and sorrows of Eurydice and Orpheus from their blissful beginning to their tragic eternal separation.
“Hadestown” is a musical treasure not to be missed. If you are a fan of folk music, vibrant narrative, or musical theater, than I highly recommend giving this album a listening. Even if it’s just for the sake of trying out something new, I think any listener can find something to enjoy on this record. Pop the record in on a long drive or during a needed study break, but make sure to listen all the way through. You’ll soon find yourself getting lost in the tragedy of Eurydice on her journey to Hadestown, as Anaïs Mitchell saunters into your musical history.