Young Man in America by Anais Mitchell

· music · review ·

I recently bought Anaïs Mitchell’s new album ‘Young Man in America’. I loved her previous album, Hadestown, and found it original and beautifully executed. So I was eager to hear what she had done with her next album. I saved listening to it for the first time until I was returning by train from Lincoln, as I knew I would have time to kill and could enjoy the album from the comfort of my headphones. I ended up being really entranced from beginning to end, and subsequent listens have made me appreciate the album even more.

In general, it’s a much quieter, more low-key album than ‘Hadestown’, which is inevitable since that album was an ensemble folk opera, where most of the songs on ‘Young Man in America’ are sung solo or as duets. However, the songs themselves have such extraordinary lyrics that your attention is held. In the title track, an epic song about a man being gradually seduced by the shiny pleasures of materialism, there are the following lines:

I come out like a cannonball / Come of age of alcohol
Raven in a field of rye / With a black and roving eye / Black and roving eye
Ravenous, ravenous / What you got, it’s not enough / Young man in America

She has a great way with an evocative turn of phrase. In another song, ‘He Did’ about the difficult relationship between a father and a daughter, she sings,

But you grew up straight and you grew up true / And he kept a blue-gray eye on you
Until the day he closed his eyes and left them closed
Your daddy didn’t leave a will / He left a shovel and a hole to fill

That song is really moving, and I struggled to keep it together on the train while listening to it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve listened to a song on the train and been moved to tears1, but I just about managed to keep it under control this time, although it did make me want to give my Dad a big hug, right there and then. There isn’t really a theme to the album, but there are quite a few songs about the relationship between parents and children, responsibility, and about somehow finding your way in the world — knowing who you are and who you are meant to be.

The musical arrangements are sparse and delicate, but really beautiful, with piano and some wonderful guitar and mandolin playing. Anaïs has a voice that’s perhaps an acquired taste (I love it), but she writes songs with musical hooks that tend to stick in your mind. I’ve found myself singing several of the tracks on the album to myself over the past few days. The music feels fresh and original, but also rooted deeply in the tradition of both American and British folk music. ‘Shepherd’ in particular feels just like a tragedy ballad from the British tradition, but is apparently based on a story that her father wrote when we was in his early 30s — the same age as Anaïs is now.

It’s a really mature and accomplished album, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

  1. I’m looking in your direction, Chris Wood… ↩︎