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To Lie Down Forever
on June 24, 2010
I think it was W.H. Auden who warned poets against relying too heavily on subject matter pulled from the "myth-kitty." In the last thirty years or so, one of the most frequently used and abused myths has been that of Orpheus and Eurydice, a tale most famously presented in Ovid's Metamorphoses, though most movingly in Vergil's Georgica. In fact, the myth has become a kind of emotional short-hand, allowing writers of all stripes to indulge their own fantastic visions of themselves as heroic figures attempting to rescue lost love from oblivion. In short, the myth has been popularized, and, as often happens with what becomes popularized, its strength has been diminished by repeated usage, the way a statue's hand can be worn away by generations of passersby high-fiving or shaking it.
And yet one of the best, and most over-looked, records of 2010 has been Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown, which recasts the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in a setting that is at once a mid-twentieth-century mining town and also the timeless city of Death. With Hadestown, which is a record adapted from a musical play, Mitchell presents Orpheus and Eurydice as sweet-singing rustics, who are separated when Eurydice is ultimately lured to "Hadestown," a kind of materialistic big-business world governed by Hades, suggesting the spiritual death of "selling out." The new terms added to the myth allow the songs a great range of styles, from NPR-friendly contemporary folk to a kind of vaudevillian swing.
The retelling of this myth is strengthened by the spectacular cast who take part in the record. Mitchell herself voices Eurydice, and uses the soft drawl of her voice to evoke everything from desire to pity. Her performance is strong, but the show is stolen by Orpheus, appropriately voiced by the angelic Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver and Volcano Choir fame. Vernon's vocals are so filled with sweetness and longing, much like on For Emma, Forever Ago, that one doesn't doubt his claim in the album's opener, "Wedding Song": "Lover, when I sing my song, / all the rivers sing along." One would not be terribly surprised if one were to see Vernon, himself a sweet-singing rustic, sing a few soft strains in an open meadow only to be joined by the river and the trees. His voice is capable of animating everything around it.
Another standout performance is delivered by none other than Ani DiFranco, who voices Hades' wife, Persephone. DiFranco proves, as if she needed to, that she is capable of belting swaggering honkey-tonk tunes, such as "Our Lady of the Underground," just as much as whispering tender plaints on "How Long?" And Greg Brown, who voices Hades, presents a voice so deep and gravelly, one wonders if his vocal coach was James Earl Jones. His baritone grumbling and bellowing are nothing short of convincing as the musings of the King of Death.
But these stand-out guest-spots are all in the service of Mitchell's song-writing. Having seen what Sappho could do with Greek and Horace could do with Latin, I am forever hesitant of comparing song lyrics with poetry, and yet there are moments of genuine poetic force in many of these songs. On "Wait for Me," a back-and-forth duet in which Vernon's Orpheus questions Hermes, voiced by Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, about how he might reach Hadestown and reclaim his lost love, Hermes warns, "That town will suck you dry.../ They'll pluck the heart right out your chest / They'll truss you up in your Sunday best / And stuff your mouth with cotton." The particularity of that last image is devastating in that it makes death incredibly real, while simultaneously suggesting that it is the way of Hadestown, as it is the way of the world of big-business, to silence even the sweetest singers with comfort, with cotton. That comfort brings about a spiritual death is a recurrent theme of the album (Hades at one point, while luring Eurydice to join him, mocks Orpheus by saying, "You'll give him your hand / He'll give you his hand to mouth / He'll write you a poem when the power's out"). And here, we see Orpheus facing the same type of conformity-death: it is the comfort of cotton that will silence him, the financial resources of Hadestown that will shut him up, that will kill his song.
And yet Mitchell's songs are not simply collections of memorable lines, though of those there are many. Rather, she uses them all to support her considerable talent at building mimetic song structures. For instance, the song "Why We Build the Wall," utilizes the ever-growing structure of the round, an unlikely choice for a contemporary pop tune, to mimic the way in which propaganda builds on propaganda until a type of rhetorical wall is built. One can only admire the way in which Mitchell uses the circular reasoning of nationalistic propaganda to build just such a rhetorical wall between the living and the dead. The final chorus of the song, in its ironic presentation of Hadestown's reasoning for building a wall to separate its inhabitants from the "living," whom we might associate with the artists such as Orpheus, goes as following: "What do we have that they should want? / We have a wall to work upon! / We have work and they have none / And our work is never done / My children, my children / And the war is never won / The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free / That's why we build the wall / We build the wall to keep us free / We build the wall to keep us free". Note how surreptitiously we find through a dramatic irony that building the wall becomes its own justification. As the round grows, and a chorus of voices is singing, we hear echoes of the recent political propaganda encouraging the building of a wall to separate The United States from Mexico. Indeed, it can be astonishing how relevant this record is to our current social and political climate; for all its beauty Hadestown is not just a pretty record about an imaginary world, but a trenchant commentary on the American culture of the present.
And what Hadestown ultimately says about our culture is unpleasant. Orpheus and Eurydice are separated by Eurydice's understandable pragmatism; she is hungry and doesn't see a realistic financial future with the great poet and singer. As one song states, "Things get mean when the chips are down." Consequently, she joins the money-hungry world of Death, and Orpheus, for all his love, cannot bring her back. Anyone who knows contemporary artists and poets recognizes this dilemma; art in our culture is, lamentably, not a viable means of self-sustenance, let alone a foundation for building a family. And, more often than not, even those who are not soulless suits, those who have souls and love art, are tempted to leave their inner-lives behind to work day-jobs, to enter the "real-world." As Eurydice sings at one point, we are tired and we "want to lie down forever." Unfortunately, as Hadestown suggests, that "real-world" is a world of lies and greed; the real real world is the world of poetry and song. But, as Flannery O'Connor said, "We all prefer comfort to joy." Most of us embalm ourselves and stuff our mouths with cotton. Most of us sign our lives away to make a living, and there is no singer sweet enough to bring us back to the beautiful and magical living worlds inside us. Or is there?