Whenever I recommend Anais Mitchell’s music to friends, I always feel compelled to apologize for the twang in her voice. I don’t know why. Dylan’s rasp is revered, Cohen’s husk is hallowed, Cash’s croak is cherished. Mitchell’s twang is apologized for. I solemnly swear to apologize no more.
Mitchell’s voice is beautiful – crisp as an Autumn afternoon. It is clear and full of expression. It illuminates the words she has crafted like nothing else could.
I first encountered this glistening twang in a cover she did with Bon (the great) Iver. “Maybe you’ll find me out in the garden / Looking for something pure,” comes her voice, halfway through the song ‘Lovin’s for Fools’. The song isn’t even an Anais Mitchell song, it is a Sarah Siskind song, and there are many versions of it on the internet, but anyone who’s ever heard this version will always hear Mitchell’s voice when they think of those lyrics.
Crackly as the recording may be, there’s something really compelling about the interplay between Mitchell’s and Vernon’s two voices. There is a narrative in the clash of voices: a marriage breaking down and the accompanying pain, freedom and confusion of that…and love somewhere off to the left without a place in the equation.
Hearing that version of ‘Lovin’s for Fools’ was powerful, but it was just the beginning. ‘1984’ taught me how clever Mitchell could be, and how clever songs could be in general, when written right. It manages to draw on an infamous work of literature – “Down at headquarters / There’s a big database / with […] your library records and all your test scores” (Orwell’s 1984, if we hadn’t guessed from the title) – a threatened love story – “They can hear us making breakfast / They can hear us making love” – and humour – “It sure is gonna be lonely / after I turn you in” – all in one. All through this version, the audience is rapt, and at the end they laugh – it is a song with a punchline! But it is not throwaway or silly. It keeps us thinking.
‘The Shepherd’s Song‘, to me, was for a long time just a sweet melody with words, until I did what you’re supposed to do with folk songs and listened to the story. Then it became dark and mysterious. There is a shepherd and a storm and his pregnant wife keeps asking to go to the hospital, but the shepherd keeps telling her work needs to be done, and there’s a storm, until, at the end, the babe is not born and the wife is no more. “What just happened?” I suddenly said to myself, then listened again, and again.
I will be a long time discovering all the stories in Mitchell’s work, which is why I know I will love her for a long time. I will forget about her, and then out of the blue a sharp lyric will jump out at me from my iPod. Something like: “Everything you should’ve said / Everything you said instead”, and I’ll realize it’s ‘You Are Forgiven‘.
Or, “I’m not trying to bother you / Then I will leave you there were you are sleeping”, and it will be the sad song Changer.
I’ll hear the symmetry in a sentence like “I wanna see you half-lit / in the half-light / laughing with the whites of your dark eyes / shining darkly” and discover it’s ‘Your Fonder Heart‘.
Or I’ll hear a sharp guitar riff and remember how soothing the music itself can be, only to hear an old biblical story, like ‘Song of the Magi‘.
And I will be in dreamland again, trying to decipher. And I will always get more than I bargained for. I’ll get the tapestry of American literature, the truths and beyond-truths of emotion, the stories of the bible and how they seem to tell our modern life. For now, I can’t help crumbling at the tumble of time in ‘Now You Know’. The singer thinks about her life, passing through time, her relationship, her future, her death – it’s both happy and sad, a summary of life and love, and if you want to know why I’m crying, Now You Know.