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Concept Album Corner - 'Hadestown' by Anais Mitchell

Updated on February 5, 2013
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With the month of February now on our hands, the seductively artificial scent of romance wavers in the air, growing at its strongest point on the lovely day of Valentines’ Day. Love is certainly a favorite musing among artists, philosophers, and teenagers, so it makes sense that there would be a couple of concept albums out there that focus on the darker and more tragic aspects of love. Hell, in all of music history, love has been one of the major driving forces behind popular songwriting, especially with modern music. I don’t even need to go into detail on this one, as most of you are probably already thinking of your favorite love songs or your musical crush or that one time you made a mix CD or tape for a certain special someone in mind…or The Beatles. At any rate, we all experience love at some point in some form or another, so what better way to look at the beauties of love than to see how it can all go sour?

There’s a popular aspect of the Rock Opera Formula that a typical Rock Opera must have a downer ending of sorts, which can always lead to an interesting and sometimes emotionally powerful end for romantic drama. One of the most famous Tragic Love Stories that goes all the way back to Greek Mythology is the fable of Orpheus and Eurydice. For those unaware, Orpheus was the greatest musician in all the world who won the hand of the beautiful Eurydice. The two seemed to be perfect lovers but, on their wedding day, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died soon afterwards. Orpheus traveled to the depths of the underworld to retrieve her from Hades, God of the Underworld, attempting to please him with a song. There is debate as to how the song affected Hades, but the result was that he made a deal with Orpheus: that he may leave with Eurydice to the land of the living so long as he didn’t turn around to make sure Eurydice was following him. Sadly, out of doubt or out of impatience, Orpheus looks behind just as he reaches the exit of the Underworld, leaving Eurydice trapped there forever. It’s a tale that has inspired many great tragic love stories since and has become a fairly popular part of Greek Mythology in recent times. So it would naturally be a great basis for a musical.

Enter Anais Mitchell, folk singer and creator of the musical/rock opera, Hadestown, a retelling of the Orpheus Myth set in an otherworldly land that mimics the Great Depression of America, a popular influence throughout Mitchell’s work. Hadestown was written as a small-scale stage musical that became popular in places like Virginia and New York and, as time went on, was even adapted to a full-on album, featuring popular names in the scene of folk and alternative rock.

1.) Wedding Song – As this is a folk opera, we open on the light pluck and thrum of guitar and the tap of percussion, swelling to a very peaceful and country-like piece, bringing to mind a forest lively with animals and greenery of all sorts. On the album, Anais plays the role of Eurydice, marrying her beloved Orpheus while worrying how he’ll provide for the two of them in this world. Lover tell me, if you’re able/Who’s gonna lay the wedding table?/Times being what they are/Hard and getting harder all the time. Orpheus is played by Justin Vernon, frontman of Bon Iver. Orpheus’ singing voice on the album is a rather unique one, in that he has two pitches singing simultaneous, one in a high register and a low register, to indicate his divine musical talent. Frankly, though, the high register will either be an aspect of his singing voice that one will love or hate and for me, it gets grating really quickly. I’m all for unique voices, especially on an album like this that has a multitude of singers as different characters, but Orpheus’ higher-pitched voice is more distracting than it is enthralling. To make up for it, though, Anais’ lyric writing is some of the best you’ll ever find in the realm of musicals. The lyrics are gorgeously descriptive, conjuring up imagery that fit the songs and the scenery perfectly. Orpheus reassures his beloved that his music and his singing, which has an effect on nature, will get them through. Lover when I sing my song/All the trees gonna sing along/And bend their branches down to me/To lay their fruit around my feet/The almond and the apple/And the sugar from the maple/The trees gonna lay the wedding table.

2.) Epic, Part I – Orpheus brings us into the next song with his legendary lyre, giving the audience a little ballad on the history of Hades and his underground kingdom, Hadestown. This being a Depression-era setting, Hades isn’t a God, but a manipulative business man who offers people wealth and security for labor and worship, affectively being The Lord of the Dead. A common theme throughout the lyrics is gambling. King of Diamonds, King of Spades/Hades was king of the kingdom of dirt/Miners of mines, diggers of graves/They bowed down to Hades who made them work. Though Orpheus’ vocals become grating, especially in this little segment, the lyrics and even the musical composition pulls through and saves the song. Since the title indicates a second part, this is probably the only song on the album that really employs a recurring leitmotif in the form of the ‘la-la-la-la’ chorus, which is one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever listened to. It’s light, fluttering, and moves like a very graceful Eastern dance, twirling like flower petals off into the horizon, lifted by the rising sigh of strings. To me, that little chorus number is the sound of romance itself. Sadly, the piece is cut short by the howl of mangy dogs and harmonica, pushing us rather abruptly into the next song…

3.) Way Down Hadestown – The major singer of this song is Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, playing the role of Hermes, given the role of train conductor to Hadestown, which is fitting as Hermes was the conductor of souls into the afterlife. Banjo, guitar, harmonica, drum and trumpet all blare and bounce through the song like an old fashioned Roaring Twenties number or a Tom Waits tune. The other cast members join in, including a brief appearance by Hades’ wife, Persephone: Winter’s nigh and summer’s o’er/I hear that high, lonesome sound/That’s my husband comin’ forth/To bring me home to Hadestown. Once again, the lyric writing is simply marvelous and, since I think that this is a constant factor throughout the album, I’ll just keep my mouth shut before I repeat myself over and over again. An eye for an eye! And he weighs the cost/A lie for a lie! And your soul for sale/Sold! To the king on the chromium throne/Thrown! To the bottom of a sing-sing cell/Where the little wheel squeal and the big wheel groan/You better forget about your wishing well. Eurydice’s lyrics at the end, however, indicate that her curiosity is piqued by the luxury and financial security of Hadestown.

4.) Hey, Little Songbird – Speak of the Devil, Hades finds the lovely Eurydice, the song starting off with the creeping tip-toe of low strings, creating the melody of the sickly seductive waltz. Greg Brown plays the role of Hades in one of the sexiest deep voices one can possibly find. It sounds practically subterranean, thick like dirt, scraping like stone, an oddly intoxicating hybrid of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Hades uses the allure and charm of wealth and his voice to reel in the songbird, Eurydice, taunting her lightly at first. Hey, little songbird, cat got your tongue?/Always a pity for one so pretty and young/When poverty calls to clip your wings/And knock the wing right out of lungs/Hey, nobody sings on empty… Eurydice sings back, enticed by the promise of the easy life of luxury in Hadestown. The waltz builds and builds with each passing stanza, Hades slowly wrapping Eurydice in his arms as he dances with her, impressed with her beautiful voice. Eurydice doubts the choice at first, worrying for her faithfulness to him as his wife. Hades, though, wins her over. Hey little songbird, let me guess/He’s some kind of poet and he’s penniless. The waltz ends on a simple banjo pluck and drum tap, as Hades finally persuades her to the comfort of Hadestown from the vultures and vipers of the upper world, bringing to mind Eurydice’s symbolic death.

5.) Gone, I’m Gone – One of the best aspects of the music of Hadestown is the soothing and supernatural hum of some of the instruments, some including wine glasses and wind chimes. These musical pieces are used mostly for Eurydice’s parts, which is sort of fitting: as Eurydice has now ‘died’ and gone to Hadestown, her presence is more haunting and spiritual than before. Orpheus, my heart is yours/Always was and will be/It’s my gut I can’t ignore/Orpheus, I’m hungry. Violin joins in soon and adds more and more to the otherworldly ring to this song. These pieces have a very heavy feel of Eastern Mythology, fitting enough as we are looking at a Greek Myth (though, to my ears, the violin sounds remarkably Arabic or Japanese). As Eurydice leaves for Hadestown, The Fates, played by The Haden Triplets, serenade us through a radio-like filter, musing on Eurydice’s morality, encouraging her decision. Go ahead and lay the blame/Talk of virtue, talk of sin/Wouldn’t you have done the same?/In her shoes, in her skin? The strings join the Fates as they slowly transition into the next song…

6.) When The Chips Are Down – What’cha gonna do?/What’cha gonna do?/Now that the chips are down? As Eurydice travels to Hadestown, the bouncy and rattling beat of ‘Way Down Hadestown’ returns, more glum and gloomy than before, as The Fates continue to encourage Eurydice’s decision and even taunt Orpheus, egging him on to do something about the situation and convincing Eurydice that it’s too late to turn back on her decision. Help yourself, to hell with the rest/Even the one who loves you best! I wouldn’t call this one of the more memorable songs as it is sadly a little too short, though it’s not a wretched piece either.

7.) Wait For Me – Once again, the uncommon instrumentation comes in to create a beautiful and subtle semi-Eastern piece, where wires buzz and a lovely percussion instrument tumbles down, strings march in a paranoid beat, worried yet perseverant. Orpheus gets directions from Hermes to Hadestown, who whispers in the dark the perilous journey that Orpheus must take. Them dogs will lay down and play dead/If you got the bones, if you got the bread/But if all you got is your own two legs/Just be glad you got ‘em. These parts of the song are weirdly pretty to listen to for as dark and tense as the lyrics are, but they blossom once Orpheus, in all of his annoying, high-pitched glory, proclaims his loyalty to Eurydice, traveling through the Underworld for the one he can’t live without, as he calls out “Wait for me”. This is one of the most beautiful tracks on the entire album.

8.) Why We Build The Wall – Back to the grit and grime of Hadestown Blues, acoustic guitar drones into the scene and shimmers like the rays of a sizzling sun weighing down through the Earth and upon the laborers of Hadestown, the drum beat droning on powerfully like an endless, mindless march. Hades the King brainwashes “his children”, teaching them the reason as to why they spend day and night building a massive wall (presumably on loan from a bloke named Pink Floyd) to block out the denizens of the upper world. Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?/Why do we build the wall?, to which the chorus responds, Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free/That’s why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free? To elaborate further, the wall keeps the denizens of Hadestown in a financially stable environment through labor, keeping out those of the upper world from coming in, like a very exclusive, isolated tribe of people, not one single soul allowed to enter or leave. The song is powerful up until the very end and stays beautiful even as those spiritual sounds waver in.

9.) Our Lady of the Underground – Now we are given a much more formal introduction to the character of Persephone, Hades’ wife, played by folk icon Ani DiFranco. Persephone, being the Goddess of spring growth, acts as a perfect foil to Hades’ cold, calculative, manipulative demeanor, being warm, free-spirited, and caring to the laborers of Hadestown. The smooth jazz of the piece is also somewhat erotic and seductive, the atmosphere like a secret, underground club (there’s an interesting thought: an underground club underneath the underground city). I got the wind right here in a jar/I got the rain on tap at the bar/I got the sunshine up on the shelf/Allow me to introduce myself. The risky part of all this, however, is that Persephone is doing this behind her husband’s back through a hidden speakeasy, so Persephone is shown as an easily sympathetic person, altruistic to those in need, which becomes a major plot point in the story of Hadestown.

10.) Flowers – Eurydice finally gets a song of her own, yet there are no ears to listen. One of the slowest and softest pieces of the album, fitting as the dreamlike description entails Eurydice lying in a flower bed, a sleeping beauty unable to be awakened. It also becomes very uncomfortable if one thinks a little too much on the possible ‘relationship’ between Eurydice and Hades. Lily white and poppy red/I trembled when he laid me out/You won’t feel a thing, he said/When you go down, nothing gonna wake you now. Eurydice’s dream of the easy life of Hadestown has been shattered by the labor and work of the citizens, or in her case, sleeping like a trophy ‘pet’ to the king that she gambled with in place of her pauper, whom she dreams of in her endless sleep. I remember someone/Someone by my side/Turned his face to mine/And then I turned away/Into the shade/You, the one I left behind/If you ever walk this way/Come and find me lying in the bed I made. Though the lyrics would make one think the tune is melancholy and dreary, the tone is perfectly dissonant, light and feathery like a simple, fading dream. The blissful music and regretful lyrics almost cancel each other out flawlessly (if that makes sense), as if Eurydice is truly lifeless now.

11.) Nothing Changes – The Fates show up once more to dissuade Orpheus from the path he’s taking, to leave his wife alone and ‘happy’ in Hadestown. Being the Fates, they give their natural and logical response to any situation like this: you can’t fight against fate, so face the facts and don’t make things worse. This is probably the least interesting song on Hadestown, but it is unique in that the triplets perform only a vocal trio, with no other backing instrument of any kind. Sadly, though, there’s no discernible time signature, so it isn’t exactly a catchy song. Overall, just not that interesting.

12.) If It’s True – Here, Justin Vernon’s vocals as Orpheus are at their best, no longer annoying but at their most emotionally powerful peak. The song starts slow with piano and easy drum, Orpheus beaten and broken by the Fates’ lecture and starts suffering from an artistic breakdown. If it’s true what they say/If my love is gone for good/They can take this heart away/They take this flesh and blood. Orpheus’ higher-pitched vocals rise into effect, but it doesn’t ruin the song any. In fact, they actually help here. Orpheus’ emotionally broken and arguably melodramatic state only intensifies as the song goes on, denouncing his love for music. If it’s true what they say/If there’s nothing to be done/If there’s no part to played/If there’s no song to be sung/Take this voice, take these hands/I can’t use them anyway/Take this music and the memory/Of the muse from which it came. Just as Orpheus is turning back, prepared to surrender to Hades, his depression and cynicism work against the muses, doubting the sincerity of them and doubting the threat of a cheating king that Hades could be. And the ones who deal the cards/Are the ones who take the tricks/With their hands over their hearts/While we play the game they fix! The music, the vocals, and the passion and fury in Orpheus rises and rises, swelling faster and faster up until the quiet and hopeful end of the song.

13.) Papers (Hades Finds Out) – An instrumental piece that Anais composed with orchestrator Michael Chorney. Strings pluck in rapid fashion, tense and furious, as strings scream and horns grumble and roar, creating fitting music for a grim little chase scene. Persephone takes a liking to Orpheus as she listens to his song from before, though Hades isn’t as forgiving or as sympathetic as his wife. As the title indicates, Hades finds out about Persephone’s secret speakeasy and tension grows between the two.

14.) How Long? – Hades and Persephone speak with each other, defending their sides. While not one of the most musically interesting pieces, it is a stimulating look into the character’s personalities. It causes one to wonder how two people of such opposing personalities could tolerate each other so well, Persephone being the Spring Goddess and Hades being God the Dead. These titles match their personalities brilliantly, Hades being a cold, heartless man of reason, while Persephone is a warm, sympathetic woman of love. Persephone vouches for Orpheus: What does he care for the logic of kings?/The laws of your underworld!/It is only for love that he sings/He sings for the love of a girl. Hades retorts: How long? Just as long as Hades is king/Nothing can come of wishing on stars/Nothing comes of the songs people sing/However sorry they are/Give them a piece and they’ll take it all/Show them the crack and they’ll tear down the wall. Though Hades makes for a villainous character, he is a man of reason and doesn’t go back on his deals, a professional devil. As the two sing a duet by the songs end, their differences are made all the more clear as they look at the sun, a sight of hope, in completely opposite viewpoints, one of wonder and one of scorn: How does the sun even fit in the sky? It just burns like a fire in the pit of the sky/And the Earth is a bird on a spit in the sky/How long, how long, how long?

15.) Epic, Part II – We finally reach the sequel of the first ‘Epic’, Orpheus recounting further and further on the tale of Hades. The dirge of drums lunge in, fuming with anger. Heavy and hard is the heart of a king/King of iron, king of steel. Orpheus’ goal in this song, while debatably good-natured or bad-natured, is to empathize with Hades, to show how he and Hades are like each other in precisely one way: love for a girl. Showing Hades’ weakness, of course, could cause a riot throughout Hadestown, breaking down Hades’ impenetrable, icy statue into a fragile lover. But the heart of a man is a simple one/Small and soft, flesh and blood/All that it loves is a woman/A woman is all that it loves. Though this version of the story of Hades and Persephone is a touch more romanticized than the original myth, Hades love for Persephone is shown to be just as powerful as Orpheus’ love for Eurydice. One can now see why one loves the other: Hades, isolated and alone, seeks companionship, to possess what he cannot have, which comes in the form of the beautiful Persephone, who in turn sympathizes with Hades, seeing him as the loneliest king in the world. Even the hardest of hearts unhardened/Suddenly, he saw her there/Persephone, in her mother’s garden/Sun on her shoulders, wind in her hair/Smell of the flowers she held in her hand/The pollen that fell from her fingertips/Suddenly, Hades was only a man/With the taste of nectar on his lips. The ‘la-la-la-la’ chorus comes up once more, even heavier, no longer a sighing breath of wind, but now as if the thunderous beat of a romantic heart were captured in just one simple chorus. The vocals continue on their own twice more as the song finishes. Best track of the album.

16.) Lover’s Desire – Once more, another instrumental musing with Michael Chorney. The twitter of birds drones and melts into ambient waves in the background as bells and banjo ring along in the background, joined by violin and accordion. The song is, in a unique twist, very European sounding, bringing to mind a bike ride through the grassy, sandy countryside of Europe, seagulls flocking in the blue-eyed skies, the shores calm and fluid, sifting around the feet of lovers walking through the sand, hand-in-hand. Music is absolutely a language on its own that, try as I might, I simply can’t recreate. It’s pulled off magnificently here.

17.) His Kiss, The Riot – Hades is left alone, humiliated and brooding as he watches over Orpheus, finding Eurydice and embracing her. Bells and whistles echo throughout, the low thrum of an accordion chord looming like a church organ. Now it thickens in the tongue/Now it quickens in the lung/Now I’m stricken, now I’m stung/It’s done already/Dangerous, this jack of hearts/With his kiss, the riot starts. The darkness of the beginning cuts to a short, brief silence as the accordion roars to life, bringing to mind houses aflame, citizens chasing aimlessly down the streets of Hadestown. Have I made myself a lord/Just to fall upon the sword/Of some pauper’s minor chord/Who will lead them? Hades allows a remarkably French and over-the-top accordion solo to take place before going back to his menacing disposition, quelling the riots and back to his intimidating stature, no longer a man, now rebuilt as the king he was. He makes the legendary deal with Orpheus: Only one thing to be done/Let them think that they have one/Let them leave together…under one condition/Orpheus, the undersigned/Shall not turn to look behind/She’s out of sight…and he’s out of his mind! Hades accepts his small defeat, welcoming the fact that he and Orpheus are alike in their romantic aspirations. But he allows it over the devastating victory he will have over Orpheus. Nothing makes a man so bold/As a woman’s smile and a hand to hold/But all alone, his blood runs thin/And doubt comes…Doubt…Comes…In…

18.) Doubt Comes In – As Hades predicted, it is now a battle of will for Orpheus to travel back out through the Underworld without turning to make sure that Hades has kept his word. Far off wails and howls of unseen and ghastly creatures follow Orpheus as he goes along his way, the music fully taking on the atmosphere of paranoia and suspense, the drum ticking like a heartbeat, the cello winding up and down, making the darkness of the cave even darker and all the more treacherous. Orpheus voice is on the verge of shaking and shuddering as he walks supposedly alone. Doubt comes in with tricky fingers/Doubt comes in with fickle tongues/Doubt comes in and my heart falters/And forgets the songs it sung. Though Eurydice is right behind him, encouraging Orpheus all the way through, her voice is still silent to him or, even worse, Orpheus might not even believe that it’s her. The last note builds and builds into a shattering, bright bang as Orpheus reaches the exit of Hadestown…but turns around all too soon.

19.) I Raise My Cup to Him – Eurydice is left back in Hadestown and drinks in honor of her now lonesome, widowed husband. Pour the wine, and raise a cup/Drink up brothers, you know how/And spill a drop for Orpheus/Wherever he is now. The guitar strings are at their most melancholy point here as Eurydice and Persephone serenade the foolish Orpheus, inviting the audience to join in with them. Persephone gives us a musing on what she believes are the poorest and bravest folks in the world: Some birds sing when the sun shines bright/My praise is not for them/But the one who sings in the dead of night/I raise my cup to him. Even as Orpheus failed against all odds, his act of perseverance makes him a memorable figure in Hadestown, a secretive legend amongst the dead for standing up against a king. The song ends with a fair theatrical closing. Goodnight, brothers, goodnight.

Judging by how much I gushed and praised this album, you might think that I think this rock opera is simply perfect. Well, me being a person who is never fully satisfied, I will mention one flaw that I never really brought up that is present throughout the album. This is a remarkably emotionally powerful album…partially due to the fact that it is, like Persephone, an amazingly sympathetic album. This is an album that believes in true romance and love above all other things, even for one of the coldest bastards underneath the planet like Hades. Because of this, the album can get amazingly sappy and even a little bit too sympathetic. Especially the last song, which seems to praise Orpheus as a perfect, nearly infallible lover, now lonely and heartbroken and sad, a viewpoint that I don’t find much attractive.

All of that aside, this is a spectacular album. Though the music is fabulous, the instrumentation enticing and wondrous, the compositions beautifully crafted like something from a Miyazaki movie, the lyrics truly make this album. I’ve yet to meet a musician that can write lyrics and describe scenery so beautifully as Anais Mitchell can. Each word, coupled with the music, creates every scene for you and adds every sense to it, sight, sound, smell, texture. If you’re looking to win over a special someone, I’d go to this album first as a gift to give them. Ending aside, it is romance encapsulated into one small, twenty-track album.

Video by Anais Mitchell

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