Review Summary: A Stunning Folk-Opera Masterpiece2 of 2 thought this review was well written
2010 has been somewhat of a middling year in music. There have certainly been a number of strong releases from many indie bands, and even some from more mainstream acts, yet for the most part they have just been a continuation of current trends without bringing anything new to the table, and the music world is in need of a new masterpiece.
Hadestown is that masterpiece.
If an alien landed on earth and wanted to know what a concept album was, this is what you would show them. The album centers around the ancient myth of Orpheus, which may seem like a hokey basis for a concept album, but it actually shines brightly with tangible senses of love and loss, and you can sense the dramatic tension between the characters. You begin to feel what the characters feel, and you can always follow the story without feeling forced to.
This feels fresh among concept albums because you never lose track of the story. It is based on a well known myth, but you still get the sense of hearing these tunes around a campfire, making this a stark contrast to the over the top bombast of the Mars Voltas and Coheed and Cambrias of the world. This overall makes it a refreshing listen, enjoying a story without having to take notes to keep track of what exactly is happening.
Of course, a concept album is nothing without tunes, and this album has excellent songs in spades. You could put this album on your iPod on shuffle, and the tunes would all be consistently excellent listens, yet they never sound repetitive. Old-time folk and ragtime, folk-rock, indie, blues, all populate this album, all the songs perfectly arranged to suit the tone of that part of the album. Horns, strings, piano, and other instruments serve not to embellish, but rather enrich the stellar songs.
The highlight of almost all the songs is the passionate vocal performances from a diverse cast. Anais Mitchell has a voice that recalls a more controlled Joanna Newsom, a voice that flows perfectly with her collaborations with Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver. Vernon's appearance on the album will be the main attraction for many people, and his vocals here are even stronger than on For Emma, Forever Ago. He sounds possessed, with his vulnerable falsetto showing fangs and yet also becoming even more vulnerable. Veteran folkies Ani DiFranco and Greg Brown provide a foil to these youthful voices, yet neither of them are out of place, with there voices merely joining in the chorus that is Hadestown.
The entire album is highly recommended to fans of folk an indie, yet somehow it transcends any real classification. The album sounds remarkably fresh even after repeated listens, as there is simply nothing else quite like it. The only other album in recent memory that compares is Arcade Fire's Funeral, an album with a similarly ambitious scope, and passionate, emotional songs with rich and varied instrumentation. It feels modern yet also old-timey, new yet also classic, extremely ambitious yet not overreaching, this album will hopefully be remembered as the finest album of 2010.