A marvel of a record from start to finish.
James Skinner 2012-01-30
"Look upon your children," Anaïs Mitchell sings on Young Man in America’s opening song; "Wandrin’ in the wilderland / Look upon your children / Wandrin’ in the woods." For her follow-up to 2010’s stunning folk-opera Hadestown she tones down the scale a little yet offers something equally startling: a modern folk record that snaps and sparkles with energy, daring to take on some formidable themes in the process. It is America itself she addresses in that first song; a country that is starting to crumble and a population that has lost its way.
While the Young Man of its title receives top billing, the LP is fleshed out by a cast of lovers, tailors, shepherds and poets, all rendered contemporary and believable in spite of the old-fashioned language they are often drawn in. The restless, desperate existence of its protagonist serves to equate our modern times and misplaced sense of duty (of materialism, broadly) with the individual crises these characters suffer. Mothers and fathers – or their absence, more specifically – figure heavily, not least on album centrepiece Shepherd, where Mitchell weaves a tragedy over the sunniest of chord patterns.
Mitchell cites her own father as a major inspiration (indeed, it is his face that adorns the cover), and the song itself is based on the prologue of a novel he wrote some 30 years ago, when he was around the same age she is now. Mitchell has noted the inherent strangeness of a life where you’re no longer being parented but not yet a parent yourself, a relatively modern phenomenon that, along with the kind of gaudy excess characters from Jay Gatsby to Dorian Gray have struggled with, considerably touches the sense of rootlessness on display here.
It is her ability to transpose these themes onto such intimate situations that makes this LP so remarkable; that, and the fact that she is as adept a collaborator as she is chronicler. Once more enlisting Todd Sickafoose on production duties, the album is instrumentally lean and taut, and on devastating piano-ballad Coming Down genuinely breathtaking. Though her acoustic guitar steers proceedings, crackles of distortion, woodwind and expertly-deployed strings all make their presence felt, particularly on grand finale Ships.
A fierce, melodic affirmation of sadness and grief, love and lust, attachments formed both strong and precarious, Young Man in America is a marvel of a record from start to finish.