On her first album of all-new solo material since 2012, the Vermont-based folk singer reflects on her life with measured reverence.
At the start of the pandemic, Anaïs Mitchell and her family relocated from Brooklyn to her grandparents’ former home on a Vermont farm. Combing through the physical evidence of her past led Mitchell, now 40, to craft Anaïs Mitchell, a collection of songs about youth, age, memory, and relationships that reflects on her life with measured reverence. Buoyed by pure vocal melodies and thoughtful lyrics, it’s warm-toned folk with a gentle, optimistic heart.
After spending over a decade immersed in Hadestown, the Broadway musical that spun out of her 2010 concept album based on a Grecian myth, Mitchell now focuses on telling her own story. Throughout, her thoughts are pulled in two directions: backward to her younger self and ahead to the magnificent, “one in a million” future. She approaches her childhood with care and concern on “Revenant” and “Little Big Girl,” while “Bright Star” and “On My Way (Felix Song)” chart ascension and ambition—though the latter is equally occupied with mourning the late songwriter and producer Edward “Felix” McTeigue. “You get one take,” Mitchell sings. Anaïs Mitchell feels appropriately daunted; aging is surreal and unstable, the road to success steep and intimidating. On the closing piano ballad “Watershed,” the climb is all but endless.
Minute vocal manipulations render Mitchell’s words more complex than they first appear. (Look to the first line of the opening song: “Over Brooklyn Bridge” soars vocally then falls nasally, quietly, into “in a taxi.”) She often closes her lines with defined consonants, setting off a phrase with the gravity of a gentle click. She has a deft touch with rhetorical elements, as on “Little Big Girl,” which teases out the tension between age and youth by repeating the words “you grow up” until the variations mount into decades.
At times Anaïs Mitchell suffers from a lack of variation: The “Backroads” intro echoes the opening of “Bright Star,” and the repetitive themes occasionally feel heavy-handed. But more often, Mitchell uses repetition thoughtfully, whether touching on the anxieties of growing older in “Now You Know” or engaging a prayer-like personal meditation in “Revenant.” She doesn’t rely on vocal fry or quavering to invoke pain or worry—the undulation of melody does the work for her, and spare moments of speak-singing make the mundane sacrosanct.
Because she so often focuses inward, certain external moments feel unfinished or unaddressed. In “Backroads,” a one-off comment about racist police rings odd in its singularity. The sexual violence implied in “Little Big Girl” (“Let him have his way instead of/Saying what you want” and “You grow up underneath the gaze/Of many grown men’s eyes”) lands more powerfully on a song occupied with girlhood, though it’s still jarring among far idler and more nostalgic concepts.
Even as she memorializes her past, Mitchell’s eyes are focused on the horizon. She sings of wanting to be “one of a kind,” “once in a lifetime,” and “the one you ride beside,” all at once. There are no great musical innovations here, but that’s not to say the songs aren’t affecting: Anaïs Mitchell is a compelling, earnest rumination on the desires and possibilities that arise when you start looking for significance in small moments. Sitting next to your love in a taxi, suspended high over the East River, is enough to make anything feel possible.
Buy: Rough Trade