Anaïs Mitchell is seemingly always busy. A serial collaborator, Mitchell has spent the last decade-plus either wrapped in the world of Hadestown — the Greek myth-inspired musical she wrote and later adapted for a concept album before it ascended to a hit run on Broadway in 2019 — singing in folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, or collaborating with the likes of Big Red Machine and others. But it’s been a while since we’ve heard Mitchell singing new music all on her own.
Enter the new self-titled record from Mitchell, who last released a proper solo album nearly a decade ago. Anaïs Mitchell finds the accomplished singer/songwriter slowing down, not only in these 10 lovely new songs, but also in her life itself. When COVID-19 first erupted in the U.S., Mitchell left New York City for her grandparents’ old house on the family farm in Vermont and welcomed her second child shortly after. There, she says in the album’s press notes, an “unprecedented stillness” took over, and with it a newfound ease as a narrator.
Of course, Mitchell still brings her friends into the fold on this solo venture. Fellow Bonny Light Horseman player Josh Kaufman produced the album, while Bon Iver contributor Michael Lewis lends saxophone to “Brooklyn Bridge,” and Aaron Dessner, Thomas Bartlett and Big Red Machine drummer JT fill out the rest of the band.
On the new album, Mitchell writes both bluntly and specifically, which is quite the pivot from Hadestown’s dynamic storyline, or Bonny Light Horseman’s reworked folk tales and universal truths. She doesn’t try to shield unpleasant feelings in metaphor, or cram emotions into too-small boxes. On the yearning confession “Now You Know,” for example, she simply says, “When I think of the night I feel like weeping, weeping for my life / And then I think of my life / And I want to be with you.”
On “Revenant,” too, Mitchell speaks from the heart, this time greeting her grandmother’s spirit while sifting through a box of letters. And the short but powerful “Real World” feels steeped in Vermont, as well, or at least someplace devoid of bullshit and distractions. Mitchell’s desire to “lie in real grass” and “taste real whiskey on your lips” feels like the moment after a hike or a night of laughter when you feel the sudden urge to throw your laptop into the sea.
Another standout is the tale of adulthood imposter syndrome, “Little Big Girl,” which completely captures the feeling of “Who let me be in charge?” that so often accompanies growing up. “Now they treat you like a lady / Well, sometimes all you want is to cry like a baby / in your mama’s arms,” Mitchell sings. She faces the past again on “On Your Way (Felix Song),” written for a friend and fellow musician who passed away, revisiting the scrappy era when they were both beginning music careers and playing gigs on the Lower East Side.
New York City is also the backdrop for “Brooklyn Bridge,” which is unlike other tributes to the city in that it was written in Vermont, along with much of the record. Being far away prompted Mitchell to write the ode to one of NYC’s simple pleasures: “riding over one of the New York bridges at night next to someone who inspires you.”
On the production side, the album is intimate and open. The acoustic guitar-heavy songs sound as if they’re being shared around a campfire, and the piano numbers as if they’re echoing from a friend playing in the next room. It’s unfussy, yet there’s just the right frequency of electronic flickers, perfectly timed percussion and a touch of flute, courtesy of Nico Muhly. Mitchell may still feel like a “Little Big Girl,” but Anaïs Mitchell is a grownup album. It’s the first great folk album of the year, but more crucially, it’s a quiet personal triumph for Mitchell herself. Disclosing one’s own truths rarely sounds this graceful.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.