When my friend Nick told me about the existence of this album, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t found it before then. First off, I’m a concept album nut – especially when there’s a cohesive narrative as well as a unifying theme (which I suppose is the distinction between concept album and actual ‘rock opera’, but the line is often blurry). The fact that it has a cast of characters and a different person portraying each one is icing on the cake. Secondly, the story is taken from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek myth – I can never get enough mythology – transplanted into what feels like Depression-era America (everyone lookin’ for work, etc), which imagines the story fantastically. Thirdly, it’s some of the best folk I’ve ever heard. The harmonies, the melodies, the instrumentation are all absolutely top-notch.
One simple fact about the cast here that nevertheless improves the listening experience immensely is that no character sounds remotely like any other character. Anais Mitchell herself has a sprightly, innocent voice with incredible vibrato, which initially seems jarring, but handles Eurydice’s transformation from wide-eyed wonder to sorrow surprisingly easily, as she laments the empty promises she’s received in “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”. What’s also very effective about it is that her voice is easily discernible when it pops up in ensemble choruses that are representing the denizens of Hadestown – your being able to hear her marks her as one of the masses from that point on.
The other female main character is Hades’ wife, Persephone, as played by Ani DiFranco who has a lower and freer quality to her voice than Mitchell – she takes her time and gives an enticing performance on her character’s main song, “Our Lady of the Underground”, claiming to be the cure for all those that are ailing from being underground in Hadestown too long. She offers sunshine and wind and all the luxuries not easily available to those on the inside, which gives you a good picture of the racquet that she and Hades are running there. She remains more than a one-dimensional character, however, as she also has moments of poignancy, pleading the case to Hades for Orpheus and Eurydice to unite after hearing him sing in “How Long?” (which actually appeared on Mitchell’s previous album The Brightness as “Hades and Persephone”), as bedroom chat between the couple.
Following that, Justin Vernon picks up the story as Orpheus himself, retelling the story of how Hades and Persephone themselves were once young and how they came to be entwined and how Hades’ own heart is not so hard as it seems (“suddenly Hades was only a man”) – another plea to both Hades himself and the people in Hadestown to free Eurydice, in “Epic (Part II)”. It picks up the tune from part 1 earlier in the album which describes how mean and old mean old Hades really is. Vernon, he of Bon Iver, handles the constant pain and occasional joy that a god of music such as Orpheus might experience. He often hits the high notes in this that he’s famous for, but actually manages to give great performances from all over his range. The one quibble with this I have that I have a real hard time even arguing is the fact that all of his vocals are harmonized. I mean, it sort of fits that everything Orpheus sings would be in harmony, but the fact that he is the only one on the whole album whose vocals are treated that way takes me out of it a little bit – pulls me out of the fact that I’m listening to a play/story unfold and makes it sound a little more like just standard song vocals than a character delivering dialogue/lyrics. The harmonies themselves are even fantastic! It just is not consistent and makes it sounds weird when he interacts with other characters. But a very minor issue.
Greg Brown, with his lugubrious voice, plays Hades, every note that he sings screaming ‘shady’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unbelievably confident’. He has an incredibly rich voice that sounds totally at home commanding his citizens to slave away working on “Why We Build the Wall”, as they repeat his propaganda back to him in an ever-lengthening chain of word or attempting to woo Eurydice to come work for him on “Hey, Little Songbird”, brushing away any of Orpheus’ credibility and replacing it with the promise of a paycheck. A more perfect villain’s voice I cannot imagine.
Ben Knox Miller only appears a couple times on Hadestown, as do the Haden triplets, but both are difficult to forget once you’ve heard them. Miller sounds like an old rambling bluesman in his turn as Hermes, presumably a friend of Orpheus and Eurydice as he chimes in on the popular opinion of Hadestown on the big showpiece that incorporates most of the characters in the play on the upbeat “Way Down Hadestown”. The other track he’s one, “Wait For Me”, he spends in reverent whispers as he gives Orpheus instructions on how to get into Hadestown with a few ominous turns of phrase – “If all you got it your own two legs/just be glad you got ’em”. The voice he uses for his two appearances actually vary quite a bit, but both fit the mood of the song so absolutely and lend credence to the narrative.
The Haden triplets play the Fates, and what you get here is three ladies with remarkably similar voice doing all kinds of harmonic acrobatics, as they assure Eurydice that trying to get yourself some money and a steady job ain’t the worst thing in the world in “When the Chips Are Down”. The way their vocals interweave and layers on repeated lines is spellbinding and are unfortunately here to mainly dispense hard truths to our heroes.
It’s never less than a satisfying experience listening to the first folk opera I’ve ever heard, and holds my attention utterly. The songs all vary pretty significantly and the different vocals are a treat to listen to. This actually got me onto Anais Mitchell’s entire discography and she has become one of my absolute favourite folk artists because of it (her recent album with Jefferson Hamer recounting old English folk songs, Child Ballads, is fantastic)!
“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”:
“Our Lady of the Underground”:
“Epic (Part II)”:
“Why We Build the Wall”:
“Way Down Hadestown”:
“When the Chips Are Down”: