The first phase of the Covid crisis brought a rude interruption to normal life for Anaïs Mitchell. She was living in New York, in the ninth month of her pregnancy with her second child. Mitchell’s creative life was dominated, as it had been for some years, by the demands of Hadestown, the juggernaut of a musical which has grown from her folk opera about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (also the basis for her 2010 album). It’s hard, with the world now stuck in a state of numbed alarm, to remember the fearful reality of the early part of the pandemic, but Mitchell reacted by quitting the city and going back to Vermont. Mitchell’s family moved into her grandmother’s old house, just along the driveway from her childhood home. Her second daughter was born a week later.
Creatively, this enforced stillness offered a chance to refocus. “There was something about feeling kind of invisible,” she tells Uncut. “Maybe I felt I had more access to me in the music, and it didn’t matter what came out of it.” This fresh sense of perspective is clear from the opening track, the lovely “Brooklyn Bridge”, a song Mitchell had started writing in New York and then put aside, fearing it was overly sentimental, a romanticisation of Brooklyn. Viewed from Vermont, these reservations seemed irrelevant. Possibly the mystique of city life seemed more plausible from a distance. Mitchell wrote the song on piano, the lockdown having allowed her the time to take piano lessons, and handed her rudimentary tune to the more virtuosic Thomas Bartlett. There was, says Mitchell, “freedom in the simplicity of it”.
The album is produced by Josh Kaufman, who partners Mitchell in the revisionist folk trio Bonny Light Horseman. It is a collaborative effort, but there is a narrowing of focus, with Mitchell’s writing becoming more obviously personal. The demands of a commercial musical are obvious – self-expression must play second fiddle to the need to advance the plot – but even with Bonny Light Horseman there is a sense of role-playing as the songs inhabit the milieu of traditional folk. Left to her own devices, Mitchell found that she needed to overcome her tendency to be self-critical, as well as an internal narrative that she was “the slowest writer in the world”.
Partly she did this by checking in with 37d03d, the song-a-day writers’ collective established with The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Learning to say yes helped lubricate the writing process. “That was the name of the game. Whatever idea passes through, you just say yes to it, and you follow it all the way.”
The haunting “Revenant” came directly from the song-a-day experiment. It was written in an hour, and reads like a conversation between Mitchell and her absent grandmother, with childhood memories in lockstep with the songwriter’s realisation that she has entered a new stage of her life. Here, Mitchell sings with the innocent toughness of Nanci Griffith: “I’m standing at your vanity/We’re as young as we’ll ever be/Old as we ever been”. The same impulses are referenced directly in “On Your Way (Felix Song)”, which adds a veneer of romantic fascination to the business of being a performer, “going where the take was going/ No regrets and no mistakes”.
Musically, Kaufman’s arrangements are understated. The stark “Real World”, with Mitchell’s voice accompanied only by Kaufman’s acoustic guitar, is a highlight. It’s a pandemic song, but even here there’s ambiguity. Stopping the world has let the singer appreciate the things that matter – dancing, kissing, birdsong – but the real world remains out of reach.
Similarities to Taylor Swift’s recent works are no surprise. From Mitchell’s band, Bartlett, Aaron Dessner, JT Bates and Kaufman himself also play on Swift’s Folklore and Evermore. Sonically, the album has a muted palette, an approach that suits the colourised introversion of Mitchell’s writing. Even so, there are occasional flashes of illumination. “Backroads” is the album’s underplayed epic. Certainly, there is a lot of Nanci Griffith, but tune in to the twang of Kaufman’s guitar, and the lyric about getting stopped by cops on country roads, and starlight and young love, filtered by memory into something ideal – do that, and you end up in the slipstream of a Bruce Springsteen road song. Mitchell, of course, is playing with perspective, aware that in the rear-view of nostalgia, things can look closer than they are. “Cliche on the radio”, she sings, innocent and knowing, “speaking straight to my soul”.