Young Man In America by Anais Mitchell

2012

There’s lots to look forward to. The fifth Ashes Test starts on Friday and Brighton are playing three League matches in eight days. There are two Star Trek series to watch (“Discovery” and “Picard”) and I’m reading a brilliant book about the music scene (including Ultimate Spinach) in Boston in 1968. The “Get Back” film is going to be released on BluRay and Half Man Half Biscuit have announced a new album. It’s called “The Voltarol Years” which is highly appropriate as my hip operation is now four days away (unless it’s postponed). Best of all, a new Anais Mitchell album is scheduled for release in a few weeks time.

Over the past 20 years, Anais Mitchell has released eight albums. “Hadestown“, released in 2010 has been successfully turned into a Broadway musical, is an astonishingly sophisticated work and features many guest singers including Justin Vernon. “Child Ballads”, released in 2013, was recorded with Jefferson Hamer and consists of her interpretations of folk ballads compiled by Francis Child. Her last album, “xoa”, released in 2014, consisted of re-recordings of some of her previous songs. She collaborated with Josh Kaufman and Eric Johnson in 2020 on the Bonny Light Horseman album. Her new album is eponymous and will be her first album of new material since 2012’s “Young Man In America”.

Last week, John sent me a questionnaire with lots of interesting questions on it, and we discussed them in yesterday’s phone call. One of the questions was what was my favourite poem. Of course, being a well read ex-English teacher, this is the sort of thing he would ask. There were no questions about what was my favourite quadratic equation. (Which, as it happens, is x^2+7x+12=0. When I left Oakmeeds in 2011, my Year 11 class gave me a cake which had this equation iced on the top). The last poems that I properly understood were those of Stephen Spender which Mr. Mitchell taught me for my ‘O’ level in 1970.

One of my favourite TV programmes is “Only Connect” – a quiz programme which requires the contestants to display colossal amounts of lateral thinking. I am in awe of their ability to do this. I am hopless at lateral thinking but I’m quite good at literal thinking. When confronted with a poem, I want to dissect it and understand every word. I’m not content to get an impression of the “feelings” behind the allegories, similes and metaphors. I want to know exactly what it all means and for this reason, I feel doomed never to really “get” poetry.

In the end, to impress John, I opted for “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Pubrock” by T.S. Eliot. There was an occasion, many years ago, when I was trying to impress someone else, that I spent some time pouring over this work and I remember thinking it was amazing. I’m looking at it now, thinking that I need to click on the link that says “poem analysis”.

Anais Mitchell’s father is a college professor and poet. The songs that Anais Mitchell has written on this album are as close to poetry as song lyrics ever are. The meaning of the songs is not clear. For a literal thinker like myself, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what is going on. This adds to the mystery of the album, which I love mainly for the quality of the singing and the interesting instrumentation.

Anais Mitchell’s voice has been described as a cross between Joanna Newsom and John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats). That’s quite clever but hardly does justice to the uniqueness of her sound. Her voice has also been described as a sweet, squeaky bleat which is totally unfair. It has a child like quality which creates a peculiar power when she sings about death, sex, betrayal and the meaning of existence.

Wilderland

The opening song refers to a mother as someone who offers shelter and a father who shepherds his family to safety. It segues into the title track

Young Man In America

Anais Mitchell describes the overriding theme of this song (and possibly, the whole album) as portraying America as an orphan, without anyone who can be trusted to take care of it. The song traces the journey of a man from birth to death. She said that the song was borne of the recession and depicts someone who was abandoned by his father.

Coming Down

This is the most beautiful song on the album and describes someone who is coming down ostensibly from a drug experience but it would equally apply to the end of a relationship or possibly it’s about someone who has fallen on hard times.

Dyin’ Day

This song mentions the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a mountain as a test of his faith. There is a dialogue going on between the Isaac-figure, and the Abraham-figure, as Isaac questions his father’s intentions as they ascend the mountain, and the father responds with various answers that start off being matter-of-fact, but become vague in the end. This song ties into the album’s overarching theme of exploring the complexities of familial relationships–here, with the parent figure trying to do what they think is the right thing, even if it is frightening and not understandable.

Venus

Anais Mitchell has stated that this song was based on the transit of Venus in 2012. The lyrics describe someone who encounters Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Musically, this song could be described as pop, with the strongest melody of the whole album.

He Did

“He Did” starts out as a song about the narrator’s love for her father, but ends grappling with a series of personal quandaries in the wake of his death.

Annmarie

Nothing the singer can do will ever please Annmarie.

Tailor

This song describes a woman who remakes herself in the image of whatever a man wants her to be. For example, he says he likes her hair so she becomes a barber; he says he likes her clothes so she becomes a tailor, and so on. Anais Mitchell uses this conceit to pose fundamental questions about the meaning of existence. Once the man leaves, she wonders who she really is? “Who am I? Didn’t I split my mother’s side?” Does this refer to childbirth? Or laughter?

Shepherd

This song describes a shepherd torn between saving his flock and farm or being with his wife at childbirth. It was inspired by a story written by Anais Mitchell’s father, whose picture at age 30 is on the cover of the album.

You Are Forgiven

Anais Mitchell develops the theme of forgiveness after a relationship has ended. By repeating the title phrase, she inspires feelings of redemption.

Ships

The singer has been abandoned by her lover who is on a ship sailing away from her. Is this a real ship or is the sailing ship a metaphor for the end of a relationship?

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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