Nobody Listens to…Hadestown

For my first installment, I’m sticking continental and electing to tell you all about what may be the best concept album I’ve ever heard.

A few weeks ago my younger brother (full disclosure: he is six years younger and infinitely cooler than I am) started telling me all about this folk opera he read about on, and how it was a great listen.  I was initially hesitant to give “Hadestown” a shot, but I have to say that I’m glad my brother won me over.

“Hadestown” is a self-styled “folk opera” by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that recasts the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a post-apocalyptic depression-era America.  Instead of dying, Eurydice leaves Orpheus for the opportunity of work in the walled mining colony of Hadestown, which is run by the corrupt businessman Hades.  Persephone, Hermes, and the Fates make appearances as well as, respectively, Hades’ speakeasy-owner of a wife, a railroad man who guides Orpheus “down South”, and…the Fates (I think).  Admittedly, I have loved myths and legends since I was a wee lad and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in a field that allows me to study folklore, but I really geek out over the story told throughout the album.  It’s not always entirely clear what’s happening track to track, but it’s easy to imagine that one tone or sound effect corresponds to an instance in the tale or another. At least that’s the way I do it (yes, because I geek out over this sort of thing).

The casting for “Hadestown” is pretty impressive as well. Mitchell takes on the role of Eurydice, and lends it her brand of half-innocent-half-repentant pleading to a great deal of the female lead’s songs and verses.  The songwriter’s voice contrasts well with the incomparable Ani DiFranco (seriously, how did she get onto this project?) by sonically making Persephone sound a bit older and wiser, knowingly seeing the events of the myth play out from behind the bar in her speakeasy.  Folk singer Greg Brown gives Hades a strikingly deep voice that rumbles every time he delivers a line, and though I don’t feel that the writing for the titular town’s ruler is as strong as for most of the other characters, Brown’s delivery keeps the listener engaged.  Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem plays Hermes with a raggedy blues yell that I wish I could imitate, and the Haden Triplets (Tanya, Petra, and Rachel) harmonize as the three fates.

But the role of Orpheus is one I’d like to spotlight here. The vocalist who takes on the lead male role in “Hadestown” is Justin Vernon….otherwise known as the lead singer behind buzzword and recent Grammy nominee Bon Iver.  “Hadestown” is at this point about a year and a half old in its recorded form (a few live, almost hootenanny-style stage shows preceded the album), and as such may predate most listeners’ relationships with Bon Iver.  The love that Vernon has lately been getting, however, is one reason I’m surprised that no one I’ve spoken to but my super-hip brother has heard “Hadestown”.  While I wouldn’t even presume to say that Vernon’s voice is sweet enough to charm rocks, his style fits impeccably in this particular opus’ Orpheus role, and the overdubbed harmony technique that Vernon uses in his Bon Iver recordings is utilized here to give Orpheus an otherwordly quality…it’s as though Orpheus’ musical genius gives him the ability to sing with multiple voices at the same time.

Being a concept album or “folk opera”, “Hadestown“‘s lyrics tell the story through lyrics, which are frequently clever and topical while (mostly) remaining broad enough that almost every track is listenable on its own.  Some of the songs function simply as exposition or backstory to the plot, and the vast majority of the numbers refer to Orpheus, but most of these pieces could easily stand alone.  Whether this is because of the self-contained nature of the song (as in “Way Down Hadestown” and “Epic” parts 1 and 2, for example) or because the lyrics use metaphors or broader themes (as in “Wedding Song” and “If it’s True”) varies across the album.  Some of the details of the story are explained only implicitly or through research outside of the album, though the characters are all clear in their roles, and much is made of the Greek Underworld’s transformation into a mining town, with a giant wall replacing the river Styx.  With references worked in to both the original myth and more modern conventions about the hero’s journey and the archetypal roles the characters in “Hadestown” fill, the text of the album really makes everything work.

This isn’t to say that the lyrics are all that matter.  Anaïs Mitchell’s collaboration with musician Michael Chorney to add the musical backdrop to “Hadestown” really makes the opus stand out, as the pieces are all interesting to listen to, and three instrumental tracks spotlight the extent to which the songwriters used musical soundscapes as the place-setting for the scenes portrayed by the words that are sung above them.  Each song has its own groove, and impressive solos are sprinkled throughout (the piano in “When the Chips Are Down” and the Accordion in “His Kiss, The Riot” are personal favorites of mine); but everything lays over a dense musical blend of guitars, stringed instruments, percussion, brass, and sound effects. Though there are few instances where an instrument forwards the plot in place of a vocalist, I feel there are “yes!” moments to the music throughout.

All of these factors add up to a highly interesting piece that I’ve found myself playing to much more frequently than I would’ve guessed before, or even after, my first listen.  “Hadestown” is best enjoyed through a stereo in a dark room or on a night-time drive; any situation in which the album dominates the listener’s sensory maximizes its potential to really lay everything out.  There’s so much going on in each number that really listening to -as opposed to hearing- the album makes it infinitely better. 

Nobody is listening to Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” right now, but I think the all-star cast it sports and the epic blend of Greek mythology and well-written indie-folk earn it at least a few more fans. So I pass it on to you all.