With the last fifteen years of her professional life consumed by Hadestown – a phenomenon she has labelled as “some kind of hell” – the COVID-19 pandemic forced Mitchell to give into stillness. Having moved from New York to Vermont at the start of the pandemic, and shortly after giving birth to her second child, she began writing the songs that would make up her self-titled album in solitude. Then, when the world began to re-open, she enlisted the help of long-time collaborators Aaron Dessner and Thomas Bartlett, among others.
In comparison to the grand narrative arcs of Hadestown – which confront Greek mythology and economic depression – the songs of Anaïs Mitchell look to the everyday to find magic; with scene-setting opener “Brooklyn Bridge” portraying Mitchell and a partner in the backseat of a taxi looking over the titular bridge at night.
If Mitchell’s narrative ambitions seem diminished on her self-titled album, it’s simply a reflection of a wider reality of pandemic living; of desiring nothing more than a return to the simple pleasures of normal life. “Real World” best captures this; a viscerally urgent cry for intimacy, for reconnecting with the natural world and, for reuniting with family.
If these stories sound less compelling than those of her past work, rest assured that Mitchell’s talent as a songwriter has remained undimmed in the decade since Young Man in America. “Revenant” stunningly tells of reconnecting with a childhood self with an illuminating eye to detail (“In a box under the stairs / Found a lock of a child’s hair”) that’s juxtaposed with jarring, real-time realisations (“We’re as young as we’ll ever be / Old as we’ve ever been”). “The Words” meanwhile, tackles sensitively the impact of mental health on a relationship (“Did you know you’d share your bed / With these voices in my head?”). But it’s on the album’s lead single – “Bright Star” – where Mitchell best showcases her poetic prowess: “Bright Star / Since I could not fly beside you / I would chart my own course by you / And I’d sail it by your light”
The emotional centrepiece of Anaïs Mitchell is “On Your Way” – a tribute to the late producer and songwriter Felix McTeigue who died at the age of 46 in 2020. It is, perhaps, the best tribute song released this side of Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel”. The song is filled with the sort of small intimacies that only one who truly loves the other would notice and appreciate. “You were going where the tape was going / No regrets and no mistakes / You get one take / You’re on your way” goes the chorus, before in the final verse the word “you” is replaced by the “I”. Mitchell takes her grief, considers the fragility of life, seeks to embody the late McTeigue’s spirit and vows to keep on keeping on.