Bonny Light Horseman excels in its simplicity, camaraderie and passion.
It takes a deft hand to create something that sounds truly timeless; to find melodies and music that reverberate and connect with an audience no matter the decade. Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman make it look effortless on their folksy, intriguing and soothing debut as Bonny Light Horseman. Throughout the album, the trio knit together tight arrangements, glorious vocal harmonies and delightful tales into songs that are endlessly listenable.
Bonny Light Horseman is an album of creation and reinterpretation. The group moves nimbly between covers of ancient folk songs and their own tunes, to the point where you can’t tell the difference unless you knew which was which. Just like Mitchell’s Hadestown, the translation of traditional art is a way of bringing the past to present, and having both parts be just as ready for the future.
The title track builds from an earthy acoustic guitar to a field of sounds. Fluttering horns keep the track with one foot on ground and one in the clouds. Mitchell’s voice turns a lyric of the British army facing France in the Napoleonic Wars into a lament of loss. “I would fly over the ocean and alight upon the plain/Where my bonny light horseman in the war he was slain,” she sings, a sorrower rather than a soldier. “The Roving” reimagines the classic “Loving Hannah” with a graceful piano arrangement backing an acoustic guitar and a harmonious new chorus. Mitchell sings with beautiful resignation of seeing the end of a relationship before it actually concludes, just from “the roving of her eye.” On “Magpie’s Nest,” Bonny Light Horseman takes the Irish tune and embraces its core as a heartfelt ballad. “If I was a king, I’d make you my queen/I’d row you in my arm where the meadows are so green” Johnson sings, his voice filled with emotion, a reminder of how strong a statement of love can be.
The trio’s own songs shine just as much as the covers. “Deep in Love” sounds a bit like an acoustic Springsteen song, sustained by an inspiring lift. A compelling rhythm built out of a rustic shuffle and tiny flourishes is an attention-grabber. Johnson’s verses filled with loving odes, but it’s the cautious chorus of “Don’t you break my heart” that adds some emotional heft. The acoustic pickings and light foot stomp of “Mountain Rain” dive into the fable of African American folklore hero John Henry. “Hammer in the morning, hammer in the mountain rain/ John had a night down here, died with it in his hand,” Johnson sings, getting across his perseverance, sacrifice and achievement.
The songs that stand out the most on Bonny Light Horseman are where Mitchell and Johnson either share or harmonize on vocals. Their voices dovetail powerfully together, adding another level of communal vibe. “Jane Jane” breezes along at a jaunty pace, bolstered by an earworm call-and-response between Johnson and Mitchell. His voice gradually fills with weariness, but Mitchell’s dances with enthusiasm, perfect counterweights to each other. You can picture a tavern filled with people clapping along. “Bright Morning Stars” is spiritual, as Mitchell, Johnson and Justin Vernon sing mostly unaccompanied, with only occasional touches of piano. “Day is breaking in my soul,” they sing, their song a prayer towards life while mourning dearly departed loved ones. “10,000 Miles” closes the record with a melancholy song about leaving the company of a loved one. “And the seas they will burn, my love/The sun, it will dry the ocean up/If I never return, my love,” Mitchell and Johnson sing together, a promise that this separation will be temporary. But their voices sing as if this could be goodbye, a fitting ending for an album steeped in songs written at a time when such departures were more likely to be permanent. It’s a fantastic mix of hope and finality.
Bonny Light Horseman excels in its simplicity, camaraderie and passion. The record is coolly grandiose and splendid, but never pompous. It’s an album for life on the ground level, with people doing their best through circumstances both difficult and wonderful. Those are the stories that will last forever, and these three artists have made a marvelous addition to that long lineage.