Anaïs Mitchell Shakes Up Songwriting Style On Atmospheric Selt Titled LP (ALBUM REVIEW)

After spending the last decade building her Hadestown project into a Broadway phenomenon and reworking traditional folk songs with Bonny Light Horseman, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell has returned with her first solo album since 2012. After shaking up her songwriting style working with the Bon Iver and The National-affiliated 37d03d collective, Mitchell delivers a tight set of ten new songs that find her reflecting on love, children, family, and memory.

“Brooklyn Bridge” sets the tone beautifully, opening the album on a bed of wistful piano, gently finger-picked guitars, and dreamy electronics, over which Mitchell captures a romantic end-of-the-night cab ride home over the titular bridge, her voice floating on the melody like she’s still lost in that love-drunk moment. The sonic hallmarks of the 37d03d collective are instantly recognizable here, especially in Michael Lewis’ harmonized saxophone lines and the atmospheric orchestrations from Nico Muhly, and this record generally continues on the successful collaborative streak Mitchell has found with these players on projects like last year’s Big Red Machine album and her band Bonny Light Horseman. 

The album’s production – helmed by her Bonny Light Horseman bandmate Josh Kaufman – imbues these songs with a deeply reflective sound, full of warm acoustic guitars and grand pianos and just the right touch of reverb, that perfectly complements Mitchells songs examining the jolting stop the pandemic brought on and looking back on where her life has led her. This is a personal album for Mitchell, as the self-title might indicate, and song after song she and the band manage to paint a picture of what’s in her mind; on “Revenant” you can practically feel the dust being blown off sepia-toned photos as she recounts sifting through old letters after moving into the house her grandparents had lived in, and “Little Big Girl” finds Mitchell working through what it means to grow up, specifically for women, and the accumulated trauma that keeps her from acknowledging her hurt while the band gradually builds with her as she starts letting the thoughts pour out.

“Bright Star” and “On Your Way (Felix Song)” make for the album’s highest-energy moments, though neither is by any means particularly rollicking. The former is a softly galloping number with the same crystalline acoustic/electric interplay from Mitchell and Kaufman you can hear on their Bonny Light Horseman work, while the latter has Anaïs reminiscing on her scrappy NYC life over a stacked mix of banjos, guitars, pianos, background vocals, and drummer JT Bates’ understated but hypnotic beat. What it might lack in energy, Anaïs Mitchell generally makes up for in the beauty of the songwriting and performances. Mitchell’s voice never fails to deliver, wandering fairy-like through each melody while inhabiting the all-too-human yearning in her lyrics. There’s not a note or an instrument on this record that feels out of place, each little horn line or guitar twinkle is intentional and it all comes together into something with all the warmth and coziness of a winter night sitting by the fire watching the snow fall outside. 

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