Anais Mitchell: Young Man In America

Written by February 28th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Anais Mitchell
Young Man In America
(Wilderland Records)
Rating: ★★★★☆

Just as it took until 1999 for the larger world to wake to the brilliance of Stephin Merritt, in 2010, the popular musical consciousness caught up with the work of Anais Mitchell via her ambitious album and stage show Hadestown. And just as Merritt didn’t squander all that goodwill with his follow-up release i, so too has Mitchell put a permanent stamp of approval on her already sparkling reputation with the gorgeous and striving Young Man In America.

Musically speaking, the scale of this new album is much more modest than Hadestown. Mitchell and her crack backing band have returned to the lissome folk-pop approach of her first records. But it is enlivened with much brighter hues thanks to the sure hand of producer Todd Sickafoose who gives the warmth that seeps out of these songs a spiny edge. The gentle opening acoustic guitar strains of “Annemarie” that are phased just out of balance enough to disorient. The firm thrust of the drums and percussion anchoring the title track. The fluttering guitar that breaks through the otherwise placid surface of “Ships”. Bold gambits all, and ones that give these weighty songs some airiness to match Mitchell’s tinged-with-girlishness vocals.

The title should give you some sense of the scale of this album’s lyrics. It’s an appellation that wouldn’t be out of place on a thick novel by Faulkner or Steinbeck. The scale of the songs isn’t quite that ambitious, but Mitchell does set a wide-angle lens on the scope of modern American history. She uses the recurring image of the trust that children put into the hands of their fathers as an allegory about the lower and middle classes putting their futures in the hands of our government. The story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son becomes a bitter view of the current recession on “Dyin Day”. She repeats the idea on the gorgeous “He Did” (“Your daddy didn’t leave a will/he left a shovel and a hole to fill”).

Mitchell’s own father haunts this album as well. Not only on the cover, which features a picture of her dad at age 30, but also on “Shepherd,” a track adapted from one of his short stories. And it is in that way that Young Man In America slots in so perfectly with the best of Mitchell’s work; by seamlessly enmeshing the personal, the political, and the universal.

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