Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: Anais Mitchell – ‘Young Man in America’
I was born in 1977 – the year Elvis died – which places me squarely in the middle of generations X and Y.
Before Generation X came into its own (i.e. aged to a point where its members could run for office), we were looked upon as a slacker generation. A generation raised by television – MTV, specifically. While our parents, the Baby Boomers, were commuting from their day job to night school, or from job one to job two, we hung out at home, learning by example that working two jobs was what adults do. We babysat our siblings, or were sat upon by them. We watched trickle-down economics get clogged somewhere in the pipes; became conscious of the world outside our neighborhoods mid-AIDS crisis. We watched Heathers and Reality Bites and identified with all the characters.
Yes, during adolescence, the media called us slackers, but all that self-sufficiency and taking care of each other before we were really old enough to do so, turned us into an adult generation of folks torn between our communities and our need to prove something to the world. We are the internet trolls. The generation that hijacked Twitter so we could say nothing at all to everyone. The generation that flocks to reality television shows so we can watch other people totally blow their lives, not because we delight in others’ missteps, but because we were raised on television. It’s what we do to concurrently connect and disconnect. We like to kill two birds with one stone when we can.
Generation Y, meanwhile, still mostly emerging from its adolescence, is the “special” generation. The kids who were all going to be Olympians or astronauts or the scientists who cure cancer. Every single one of them was being raised to be a total genius, outperforming his or her peers with all their might. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something. It was like our parents, the young Baby Boomers and hippies, the disco queens, were inadvertently trying with all their might to erase racism and “blending in” in one generation. They succeeded, pretty much.
Based on what I’ve read on the matter (and I love this stuff) Generation Y is the most open to diversity of any generation since…well, since their parents. Stop even the most conservative Gen Y-er on the street and ask them if gay people should be allowed to marry, and they’ll laugh. Of course they should. What are you, old?
With all their individual exceptionalism, the expectation for which was foisted on them by Gen X and whatever was before that, Generation Y is revolting in the form of community farms and raising chickens. They watched Mean Girlsand they were Lindsay Lohan’s character – worldly, book smart, confused about what the hell is wrong with people. The rebellious among them told punk music to fuck off, and picked up banjos.
(I was bound to get to the music eventually, right?)
Anais Mitchell was born in 1981, which places her among the first crop of Generation Y.
I told this whole long tale about the generations because this is a generational album. It’s a folk album, and the themes are ageless, and there is depth there regardless of if you’re younger or older than I am, but there’s a reason everyone I know in this business under the age of 40 was completely enthralled with this album this year. (I say everyone I know in this business because Mitchell is still weirdly obscure to those outside of the songwriter community. I have no explanation for why. She is one of the most talented singer-songwriters I’ve ever seen.)
If you paid attention to the news this year, you probably heard about two things on repeat: the economy and authenticity. In a presidential election year, these became the two greatest points of discussion. Who could fix the economy, and could we trust one of the guys despite the fact that we all know he lies a whole lot? In the end, we picked the guy who lied less even if we didn’t always like what he had to say. The largest group to make that call – turning out for the first time in greater numbers than their parents and grandparents? Generations X and Y.
Anyway, as that debate raged, there was this little album about coming of age in 21st Century America. About figuring out what it means to be a young man, what it means to be a young woman. About what we can even do with ourselves that will matter outside of our tiny microcosms. About wrestling with our slacker past and the imposition of exceptionalism, to find meaning in a time of so much uncertainty.
After a dreamy, windy intro about the land and the highways being a wilderness where we all feel like we’re wandering in the woods, she falls into the title track:
My mother gave a mighty shout
Opened her legs and let me out
Hungry as a prairie dog
Young man in America, young man in America
Hungry, hungry, running every which way…
And that’s where the album starts. Where it goes from there is just stunning. In “Dying Day” she sings about allegiance and sacrifice and work and impermanence. “He Did” is about making use of a parent’s legacy, about living up to expectations, being the child of something, of someone; and, again, about work and impermanence.
Your daddy didn’t leave a will
He left a shovel and a hole to fill
And how it feels to be a child of his
There’s “Tailor” about bending to fit someone else’s expectations. “Shepherd” is about reluctantly putting work ahead of family, about work and impermanence, and love, and never being satisfied, about choices and their ramifications. “You Are Forgiven” could be about a lover or a parent or a nation or one’s self. It’s a song about letting go of what was or might have been, about making peace with what is and will be. And it’s about work, and impermanence.
But then there’s “Ships”, and here’s where the tide turns. Here’s where it stops being applicable to some greater cause or message or idea, or world. Where the spotlight shifts to the quiet smallness of desire. Where some of the other songs on the disc hinted at it, “Ships” is what ties the knot – it’s where Mitchell succeeds at saying, more or less: Yes, we are of this world, we are indebted to it, but we cannot sail into or through its messes without first finding our vehicle.
I was reading last night in the New York Times magazine about a jellyfish that ages forward, then backward, then forward again. An immortal jellyfish. Like a pendulum swinging, its life just continues. When it reaches a point where human logic would presume it’s about to be all over, the jellyfish’s body starts behaving like a younger being. There’s one scientist – who works alone – in Japan, studying this thing. Trying to crack the code, trying to discover what biological attribute perpetuates this being.
Wilco, a few years back, showing their age, released a song that said “Every generation thinks it’s the last, thinks it’s the end of the world.” And, even though I loved that song at the time, there was something defeatist about it to me. I don’t believe my generation will be the last. I think we’re only just getting started. I think if we can shift our focus back to that quiet smallness of desire – that notion that we must first find our vehicle before we can move forward – we can stop focusing on the horizon and start moving through the harbor. Perhaps impermanence is just something to sing about. Perhaps that Japanese scientist (who is 60, by the way, but looks 30) is onto something with that Turritopsis nutricula.
Maybe what it means to be a young man or woman in America in 2012 is to remind us all that impermanence is, to borrow half a phrase from Barbara Kingsolver, a human presumption. The pendulum swings and, when we haven’t learned from what other generations have done before us, we can and will always turn around, head back to where we came from, and start all over again.
Waiting to be born again
Mother kiss me, cheek and chin
Mmm, a little medicine
Mmm, and then I shed my skin
Mmm, and let me climb back in the bed you made me in