Each of Anaïs Mitchell’s previous three albums has been, to a greater or lesser extent, themed around a particular topic, from 2010’s Hadestown (exporing the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice), via Young Man in America (2012) which she has stated was “influenced by the recession” to last year’s Child Ballads (arrangements of traditional folk tunes from Francis James Child’s collection). For her seventh album, xoa, the American singer-songwriter and musician has opted for a loosely autobiographical approach, largely driven by requests by her fans over the years. So we have a collection which is roughly half new and previously unrecorded songs and half from her back catalogue (The Brightness, Young Man in America, Hymns for the Exiled, Hadestown).
It’s something of an article of faith with me that a good song will take any number of different interpretations, from a pared down voice-and-guitar demo to a full-on band arrangement. In part, this may be due to the song structure or it may simply be down to the performance but both of these things are evident variously on the revisited songs here. The songs from Hadestown (Why We Build The Wall, If It’s True and His Kiss, His Riot) demonstrate a combination of both: although the vocal contributions of Greg Brown and Justin Vernon are conspicuous by their absence, Why We Build The Wall here takes on a new dimension as a pithy observation on the culture of austerity so prevalent in the so-called “developed world”, to the point where it’s more protest song than part of a concept album. Similarly, stripped of Justin Vernon’s multitracked voice, the strings and percussion of the Hadestown original, If It’s True becomes a desolate howl of abandonment and is one of the standout tracks on xoa.
Similarly, Young Man in America and You Are Forgiven (both from Young Man in America) are instructive and on close listening it’s possible to see how the original arrangements must have developed almost organically throughout the recording process, while Anaïs’ gentle reworking of Two Kids (from Hymns for the Exiled) allows the rhythms and textures of the Arabic poem at its heart to stand out in a way that they don’t on the 2004 version.
That said, I do feel that there are occasions where the reductive approach doesn’t always succeed: with the benefit of hindsight, the atmospheric version of His Kiss, His Riot on Hadestown was, and remains, the definitive rendering. Anaïs’ 2007 album The Brightness is one of my favourite albums of hers and it may be that I’m bringing my own personal prejudices to the table, but for me, the reworkings of Your Fonder Heart and Namesake add little to the originals. Nevertheless, in the context of xoa, they fit right in and there’s no denying the passion in Anaïs’ performances.
Of the newer and unreleased songs, the imagery of New Orleans in Out of Pawn paints a highly evocative word picture of that city which is as gripping as any of Bruce Springsteen’s paeans to New Jersey. There’s a touching intimacy about the personal and introspective Now You Know which I find very appealing while the breathlessly intricate wordplay of The Pursewarden Affair is a joy to hear. These three songs in particular I feel would stand future rerecordings with more fleshed-out arrangements. Our Lady of the Underground calls to mind some of the earlier songs of Rickie Lee Jones and I can imagine it becoming a live favourite, while other songs like Come September and the deceptively powerful Cosmic American work just fine as they are.
Anaïs Mitchell has a well-deserved reputation as a fearless songwriter and performer who isn’t afraid to take chances with her work and that trait is as clear as it’s ever been on this album. She has sufficient creative integrity to avoid turning out a half-hearted “for fans only” grab-bag of B-sides and outtakes and, with producer/engineer Gary Paczosa, has produced a solo, ‘back to basics’ collection which hangs together surprisingly well and sits comfortably alongside her previous releases as a fully-fledged artistic statement in its own right.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now via Wilderland Records
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