Hadestown was originally a stage production, lovingly dubbed a folk opera by its creator, Anais Mitchell. The idea was hatched in small-town Vermont by a community of individuals who have farms, trade vegetables, and make music when they’re bored. Anais called it an opera because by definition that’s what it is, “a dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.”
It sounds like a tall order, right? You think to yourself, An opera based on a Greek myth, set in a post-apocalyptic American depression era? Is this something I really want to drive around and listen to, or blast while I putter around the kitchen? And I’m here to tell you, yes, it definitely is! It’s a remarkable album, extremely accessible, fun, and thought-provoking. Seemingly countless styles of music merge together in a gorgeous, unique way: jazz, funk, folk, blues, gospel, rock…the list just goes on and on. I’ve never heard anything like it. The songs are instantly enjoyable, and at first, it’s barely noticeable that there’s something deeper going on. After you give it a couple more listens and begin to grasp the lyrics, that’s when the story really unfolds. The cover art and the booklet are excellent. The booklet guides you through the production, really enhancing the experience. Rather than downloading this, I highly recommend getting your hands on a hard copy.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) sings the part of Orpheus, the mythical “father of songs.” Anais Mitchell plays Eurydice, his wife, whom he attempts to rescue from the underworld (Hadestown). The first track on the album “Wedding Song” has their voices playfully dancing together, and the collaboration has me wishing that they’d make another album together. I want more! We’re introduced to the other main characters, Persephone (Ani Difranco) and Hades (Greg Brown) in the third track, “Way Down Hadestown,” a song with a bustle-rustlin’ ragtime flavor. There are more guests, too: The Haden Triplets sing the part of The Fates, and their performance in “Gone, I’m Gone” is stunning. Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem portrays Hermes, harmonizing with Justin Vernon beautifully. And that’s just the vocalists — I haven’t even gotten to the players yet!
The musicians on the album weave the most amazing backdrop, and it’s mastered perfectly. There’s glass orchestra, pedal steel, four string banjo, acoustic guitar, pump organ, trombone, vibraphone, and more. It sounds like something a backwoods mad scientist would create, and perhaps it is, but it comes out sounding polished, charming, and fresh.
I’m normally not this positive and emphatic about albums when I review them. I’m a critic, and sometimes I have icky things to say. My only complaint about Hadestown is that I haven’t heard enough people talking about it. Take notice! This isn’t an album you should pass by.
(Righteous Babe Records, 341 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14202)