Of all things that could possibly pique my interest, this one is a bit of a shoo-in. Striking album art, a cast list (in its most literal sense, as it turns out) comprising people involved with some of my favourite records, and a history that revealed a labour of love that has stretched back for a few years onstage before this album was finally realised.
And, as I’d only just found out about this a couple of days ago (it was released back in April), it’s somewhat fitting that one of the last albums of 2010 that I’ve bought this year is one that is based on a mythical tale that cautions against looking backwards. Anaïs Mitchell’s post-apocalyptic depression-era musical based on the tragic but love-filled Tale of Orpheus is absolutely perfect listening for this end of the year.The story of the musical Argonaut (whose music drowned out the song of the Sirens, enabling Jason’s safe passage) lends itself incredibly well to musical storytelling. A man who legend has it is the father of all song and poetry, Orpheus loses his wife Eurydice to a viper’s bite, and his musical lament made the gods weep. Not being one to give up on his love, he journeys into the underworld where his music softens even the hearts of the King & Queen of that domain (Hades and Persephone) enough for them to agree to release Eurydice back to the land of the living, with one condition attached – that he left the underworld with his wife behind him, and that he should never once look back on his journey. And sadly Orpheus’ love for Eurydice was also his undoing, as he turned round too soon and lost his wife forever. As tragic love stories go with regard to the basis for any piece of music, it’s a hard one to top.
But how to squeeze all this into music? Anaïs finds the solution to this by performing the story over the course of the whole album, selflessly giving each main character their own voice and performing it as a contemporary opera that is a lot more listener-inclusive than the term ‘opera’ usually indicates.
It’s an impressive castlist for sure – our hero Orpheus is voiced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon with Anaïs taking the role of his tragic bride. Orpheus is guided through the underworld by Hermes, played by The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller, where he meets up with Persephone (Ani DiFranco) and her husband Hades, performed by the almost impossibly-gruff Greg Brown. And popping up every now and then to complete the vocal cast are Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden as The Fates. Each takes to their role perfectly and bring the story to life.
And for a myth that ticks so many emotional boxes with such different characters, the music is tailor-made to each player and chapter. Orpheus is largely portayed as melancholy and plaintive (which suits Justin’s voice down to a tee), Hades is sullen and weary of the souls under his charge, Persephone is weary of Hades, and Hermes and the Fates come across as people who enjoy their job rather too much. This is reflected in the changes in musical style from track to track – Hermes’ main turn in Welcome to Hadestown is a fine slice of Waits-ey Bourbon-soaked New Orleans, Gone, I’m Gone features the triplets as The Fates in full, close-harmonied flow that remind these ears of The Moulettes, Why We Build The Wall (which is a track that most brings the story up to the modern era) is sorrow-filled Gospel Blues, and the instrumental Papers (Hades Finds Out) allows co-composer Michael Chorney full range to evoke the anger of the Underworld. Taken at its most superficial level and ignoring the craft and love that has gone into making this record (which is nigh-on impossible to do), just appreciating the sheer spectacle of it all is enough to take Hadestown to heart.
The most impressive performances however are reserved for Ms Mitchell herself, who plays her character as someone so utterly and happily in love that the sadder parts of the opera are forgotten every time she sings.
It’s an incredibly immersive album. Across its twenty tracks, you are soon sucked into the story and it’s something that plays out beautifully in the head, such is the work that has gone into its creation. And personally, I’m gutted that I find myself unable to make my way down to the other end of the country next month to see this performed live in one of the most beautiful venues I have ever visited and one that is perfect for this show (London’s Union Chapel). I guess I’ll just have to cross my fingers that it rolls into a town near here sometime in the future, or that someone sees sense and makes a film of it.