A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Graham Warnken
Anaïs Mitchell can certainly never be accused of a lack of ambition. Her most well-known project is the folk opera Hadestown (currently playing as an acclaimed Off-Broadway show), which transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a Great Depression-type American dystopia and features guests such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Orpheus) and Ani DiFranco (Persephone). The fact that that album is even coherent is an achievement—that it’s one of the best releases of its year is incredible.
Due to her fans’ desire to see many of the full-band numbers from Hadestown and its follow-up Young Man in America recorded solo, as well as Mitchell’s desire to release a few new songs and re-record earlier pieces she deemed unsatisfactory in their original form, 2014 saw the release of xoa. It’s an oddball fusion of a greatest-hits collection with an inverted demo reel, familiar numbers rendered new in their stripped-down format and new songs peeking their way through the sea of music from days gone by. Fortunately, what could have been a perfunctory toss-off ends up being a wonderful album in its own right, equalling and often outright improving upon the earlier material that gives it life.
As with each of Mitchell’s preceding records, xoa is a mix of the personal and the political. The former category includes the heartbreaking “Out of Pawn”, written as a letter from a Katrina survivor to an uncle who didn’t make it; “Come September”, the lament of a migrant picker jilted by her lover; and “Now You Know”, a quietly gorgeous fusion of lullaby and lovesong, among others. Each of these tracks elevates sentiments that could come across as maudlin, thanks to the craft with which Mitchell shapes her lyrics. Internal rhyme and alliteration are constant presences, but avoid calling undue attention to themselves; the sonic rhythms formed by these poetic devices are as natural as they are precise, drawing the listener in unawares. The same holds true for the record’s political half—the propagandic round “Why We Build the Wall” (written a decade before America’s current Trump problem), the barren climate-change panorama of “Any Way the Wind Blows”, the desperate hungry yowl of “Young Man in America”, rise above mere polemic due to the wit and intelligence with which their words are wrought.
Besides wordplay, another constant is emotion. Playful and joyful numbers are lifted up by the little-girl lilt of Mitchell’s tongue, which seems genuinely pleased to be here; desolate dirges are delivered with a grief that’s completely believable. Perhaps the most effective emotional moment on the record comes with its re-recorded version of “Your Fonder Heart”, originally present on Mitchell’s The Brightness. In its original version, the song is a warm, teasing greeting to someone who could be a friend come out to play or a lover with whom to wander under the stars, evoking memories of adolescent summer evenings in all their nostalgia-tinged glory. The xoa recording takes the exact same melody and lyrics and twists it into something entirely new—the arrangement, sparse and bare, summons a vision of a caffeine-insomniac awake at two in the morning with no idea how to sleep, and Mitchell’s voice is crushed and yearning. The juxtaposition of the two cuts is startling; it’s as if they’re bookends on a broken relationship, and in hindsight complete each other.
I don’t know that xoa is the album I would direct new listeners to as a starting point for Mitchell—a couple of the Hadestown cuts don’t make much sense out of context, and while there’s the cohesive sound of Mitchell alone on her guitar the subject matter is too varied to form a unified album. That said, it’s the record of hers I find myself listening to the most, and is easily in my top ten albums. In almost every step it takes it improves on material that was already incredibly good, intimate and perfectly constructed. It’s the latest in a long string of storytelling achievements from the current Queen of Folk Music.