Hope at the end of a long, bad dream

Anaïs Mitchell, Young Man in America (Wilderland Records, 2012)

The powerful strokes of guitar and drum that beat like some tribal rite; the intermittent harmonies wailing “oooooh”; the idyll conjured by the lilting flute and the repeated reference to shepherds; the lyrical insistence that the world is hard place in which rugged individuals struggle – every element of the album is right there, front and center in the first song of Anaïs Mitchell’s Young Man in America, “Wilderland.” And though the overarching allegory relies on an outmoded vision of America – a country maintained by fathers who work the fields and mothers who keep the hearth – it does so as a counterpoint to the complexity and ethical fuzziness that leads to economic ruin such as we have seen in recent years (and have seen in ages past, and alas will likely see again). Most importantly, though, it is achingly gorgeous and the band nearly flawless in its delivery of that vision.

When I reflect on this album, I keep coming back to the lyrics themselves – Mitchell’s attention to tangible image and evocative metaphor reveal a facility with and concern for the word that matches the dynamic and thoughtful composition of the music itself. This seems a series of well-crafted narrative poems set to music, rather than a set of easy clichés penned as afterthought and accompaniment to ringing guitar. Maybe that sets a low bar for popular music, but I dare you to strip the tunes from any song in your favorite playlist and tell me it is still worth the 99¢ charge. I’ll wait….

Apropos of what I mean, standout and title-song, “Young Man in America,” makes taut the primary tension that seems to be at the heart of many of the songs here: that parents do disservice to their children in being hard-minded and overly stern (“Put me out onto the street / Didn’t give a damn for me / Did not give a damn”), as evidenced by the young man’s substance abuse and rebellion (“Come of age of alcohol,” “Mmm, a little medicine,” “Daddy, daddy, gonna wish you never had me”). This idea about how fathers and sons relate is, in a larger sense, symbolic of how states treat citizens, and this is an idea that has seen articulation before.

In such works as Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” and Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration – as well as in Mitchell’s “Dyin Day” – we find versions of the Abraham-Isaac story in which the patriarch willingly kills the son. A bargain that promises golden reward for faith in the grace of a higher power, in the wisdom of elders, but a faith which pays out most often in the worthless scrip that is the misery of the dregs of capital society (and in the poem and novel above – and, I contend, in the world as we know it today – in unfathomable numbers of war dead). The sacrifice of the young to prove the faith of the old is an old story, and the foundation of the busted bargain is that the young go to die so that the rest may flourish.

There is an upside to all the hardscrabble social Darwinism and Judeo-Christian hypocrisy, at least on the album. The final two songs, “You Are Forgiven” and “Ships,” each promise respite, promise forgiveness and a ship coming in, even if only yet hypothetical and somewhere off in the future distance. In these promises, as in the frustrated, interrupted American dream, there is the twinkle of hope in good things to come, despite the ruin, despite the wreck.

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