by Phil Scarisbrick
A triumphant return for one of the great American songwriters of the 21st century, Anaïs Mitchell’s self-titled album extols the beauty of experience, and appreciating the world around you
Despite it being her first solo album of original material in a decade, Anaïs Mitchell hasn’t stood still in the intervening period. As well as releasing Child Ballads with Jefferson Hamer, she put out an album of stripped back re-recordings of older songs on xoa, continued to conquer the theatre stage with her musical Hadestown, put out the incredible Bonny Light Horseman with Eric B. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Josh Kaufman, and last year featured heavily on the latest Big Red Machine record. Now, she returns with a self-titled solo album that touches base on where we find her in 2022, as she takes a moment to pause, reflect and take stock of her life.
The opening notes of Brooklyn Bridge are so starkly beautiful that it almost feels like an affront to be faced with something so impactful before you’ve even had to strap into the record. Though a completely different beast, its misleading lightness of touch packs the same sort of power that Nick Cave’s Into My Arms did on A Boatman’s Call. ‘I wanna be someone/ I wanna be one in a million / I wanna be the one you want’ she sings as the dynamic slowly shifts with only the mere suggestion of saxophone and percussion entering the fray.
Like most of the album, Mitchell’s voice – and the way she uses it as anything from a light jab to a haymaker – is the real star. The instrumentation is meticulously curated, but seemingly only in service of the vocals. First single, Bright Star, really is exactly as its title suggests. A song of reflection, its joyful soundtrack underpins the visceral imagery of the lyrics such as ‘I have sailed in all directions / Have followed your reflection / To the farthest foreign shore, Bright star.’
At the centre of the album lies Real World – a stark, candid acoustic number that distills everything that is great about Mitchell’s songwriting into its simplest form. As she yearns to ‘taste real whiskey on your real lips’ and ‘wake up to the sound of birds,’ you can hear the creeks of the guitar as it moves around under her as she plays. Despite its sub-two minute length, it is another sucker punch to catch you off guard – just as you recover from Brooklyn Bridge’s early impact.
Little Big Girl sees Mitchell yearning for the innocence of childhood as she has to face the world as a grown woman, despite not quite feeling equipped to do so. ‘You grow up by mistake / you grow up by surprise / you grow up under the gaze of many grown men’s eyes’ she sings in the comparatively frenetic verses. The chorus coda hears Mitchell exacerbate, ‘Hold on, little big girl’ reassuring her older self that she’s going to be ok.
Closing track, Watershed, is another airy piano ballad that works as the perfect foil for the record’s opener. What really shines through on the whole record is what an incredible lyricist Mitchell is, and this final moment really drives that home. ‘The tallest summit you look up to / Some day it’s going to look small to you / There’s a new one coming into view / And you’ll climb that one too,’ is just one of the wonderful couplets that litter this song. As the music swells and builds, Mitchell’s voice never falters from its stoic beauty, whether it be confidence or acceptance of what life offers, she appears content with where we find her.
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