Anaïs Mitchell’s last album, the sorely underrated “Hadestown”, was a grand operatic folk album that took on the old Greek tale of Orpheus, retelling the story with a slew of guest musicians (including the ubiquitous Justin Vernon) for its cast. It was a grand concept and it stood out for its scope, but at the core of that album there were some very strong, emotional tracks that revealed that underneath all the grandiosity there was a talented songwriter. Ms. Mitchell follows through on that promise, reducing her latest album “Young Man In America” to simple, well-produced, wonderfully-told folk songs with a slight bent towards the political.
For being a time of such political anxiety, the last few years haven’t produced much strong, politically-minded songwriting. Mitchell seeks to change that, taking on America herself in the opening track “Wilderland”, saying “Look upon your children/wandrin’ in the Wilderland / Look upon your children / wandrin’ in the woods.” Appeals to authority ring throughout “Young Man In America” and virtually all of them end up resting unfulfilled, whether due to an absence of authority or the incompetence of it. It’s in this theme that the record finds most of its political moorings; Mitchell’s statement is a command and a plea.
Mitchell’s multitude of characters are each powerful creations and their old-fashioned nature effectively mitigates what otherwise could be a heavy-handed record. These are songs deeply rooted in the human experience and that’s what comes through first and foremost. Mitchell’s characters struggle and survive. The titular “Young Man” is a scrappy fighter, put out the street, living even as he seeks guidance from his father and protection from his mother. The man of “Shepard” continues his endless work after he lives through a heart-wrenching tragedy. It’s this that makes “Young Man in America” so poignant a record; it struggles with the harsh reality of the present even as it knows that life continues on. It’s not exactly optimism, but it is something comforting.
It’s not surprising that “Young Man In America” feels like it deserves the label “Americana” more than most. Yes, it is an acoustically-driven record that shows all the sonic trappings of the genre, and yes, it does sound really great thanks to Todd Sickafoose’s lean production, but on top of all that these are songs that feel, well, American. Even as Mitchell’s characters seek help from authority, their survival comes out of that old American ideal: self-reliance. The children of “He Did” continue to move along on their own without their fathers, the people of “Dyin’ Day” live on in their routines, believing it their duty, “doing as [they] should,” even as they question the purpose of it all. Each one of Mitchell’s children, lovers, husbands, or wives, is an unmistakably strong individual, which makes their failings - sometimes as an authority themselves, as in the case of “Shepard” - all the more painful. These are people who should be able to solve the problems they’re faced with, but somehow can’t. It’s hard not to think of Congress.
Fathers and mothers failing, children wandrin’, endless labor, and death might all mark “Young Man In America” as a bleak record and truthfully, there’s a lot here to give one pause. Even so, it has a strident sense of human spirit. There’s no silver lining exactly but life will continue on in the face of current strife, individuals will still carve out a living where ever they are able, and hopefully we will learn. If there’s something to take away from “Young Man In America”, a beautiful record that could just have easily come out of the Great Depression instead of the Great Recession, it’s that people keep going, always.