Monday, December 16, 2013


Greek mythology lends itself to rock music surprisingly well, and there's one myth in particular that I've heard retold in quite a few different songs. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice seems to be very fertile ground for songwriters; in today's blog post, I'll be looking at three artists who have tackled the tale and taken it in their own unique direction.

(Oh, in case you're not familiar with the story, it goes something like this: Orpehus, a really good singer, is engaged to a woman named Eurydice, who wanders off one day and, one way or another, gets herself killed. Orpheus then travels to the Underworld so as to bring Eurydice back, and his songs are so beautiful that Hades, ruler of the Underworld, agrees to let them both leave. But Hades gives them one condition - on their way out, Eurydice must walk behind Orpheus at all times, and Orpheus may not look back until they're both safely out. They almost make it, but as soon as Orpheus is out, he looks back to check on Eurydice and she instantly disappears back into the Underworld, all because Orpheus forgot the "until they're both safely out" bit. Woe.)

So, what has music done with this tale? Let's find out...

Anaïs Mitchell
A pretty obvious starter, given that Mitchell dedicated a whole album (Hadestown) to an update of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth. In fact, it feels more like a stage show than a mere album, with various guest stars singing the parts of different characters (Mitchell herself played Eurydice).

How does she tell it?
Mitchell adds a layer of modern austerity to the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, telling it as if it were set during the credit crunch rather than in Ancient Greece. The first song (Wedding Song, see video above) finds Eurydice worrying about how she and Orpheus will pay for their wedding, and when Hades shows up to tempt her into the Underworld, he takes a dig at Orpheus and questions his ability to provide for Eurydice:

"Hey, little songbird, let me guess: he's some kind of  poet, and he's penniless? Give him your hand, he'll give you his hand-to-mouth; he'll write you a poem when the power's out. Hey, why not fly south for the winter?"
- Hey, Little Songbird

And then, once Eurydice has gone down to Hadestown, the Haden triplets jump in to defend her - as they sing, people do desperate things When the Chips Are Down.

This whole 'hard times' backdrop gives the myth a new look; heck, the doomed souls who reside in the Underworld are actually sort of happy to be there because, hey, at least they've got a job. Check out Why We Build the Wall, featuring Greg Brown as the quite wonderful voice of Hades:


Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire's latest album features Orpheus and Eurydice (in statue form) on the front cover. Reflektor's contribution to this list is a little harder to quantify than Anaïs Mitchell's, but a pair of songs on Disc 2 - Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) - make it clear that the mythical couple are certainly an inspiration here.

How do they tell it?
I initially assumed that Awful Sound and It's Never Over were a sort of call-and-response thing between Orpheus and Eurydice ("Oh, Eurydice!" "Hey Orpheus!"), but my sources suggest that the former track is actually sung by a third person, Aristaeus, who is also in love with Eurydice (awkward!)

In some versions of the story, Aristaeus chases after Eurydice and that's how she ends up stepping on a snake and dying; this would make Aristaeus kind of responsible for Eurydice's descent into the Underworld. It's a different take to the one presented in Hadestown, where Hades himself persuades Eurydice to come with him.

The second song here is closer to what we know: Orpheus and Eurydice are making their way out of the Underworld, and Eurydice is shouting to Orpheus ("Hey Orpheus! I'm behind you!") so that he knows she's still there. It's similar to Doubt Comes In from Hadestown, except it seems to also be a metaphor for the passing of time and how quickly the good times can go. Or maybe not - it's hard to tell with the Arcade Fire.


Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
This is a very different version of the story.

How does he tell it?
Nick presents Orpheus as a kind of hen-pecked husband, sat in his shed and "wondering what to do". In The Lyre of Orpheus, Orpheus himself is responsible for Eurydice's death, and his reunion with her in the Underworld is completely accidental.

Oh, and instead of being a tender poet who can make the very Gods weep, Cave's Orpheus is a dangerous lunatic wielding a harp that spreads death and destruction all over the place. The Orpheus on Reflektor is a bit melancholy, and the Bon Iver-voiced Orpheus from Hadestown actually comes off as slightly arrogant (especially in the aforementioned Wedding Song), but this Orpheus is on another level entirely. When God does hear him play, he isn't moved so much as he is irritated, and he opts to knock Orpheus down a well by throwing a bloomin' great hammer at him.

So that's a rather strange portrayal of Orpheus and Eurydice, but the other songs on The Lyre of Orpheus don't really have anything to do with the story, do they?

Not so fast, reader. Songs like Breathless (above) and to a lesser extent Babe, You Turn Me On sound like the sort of thing that Orpheus might have sung to Eurydice to win her love in the first place, while Supernaturally deals with familiar feelings of being a long way away from the one you love:

So no, I don't think that The Lyre of Orpheus is the only Orpheus/Eurydice track on this half-album. The others certainly aren't as direct as the first one, but in many ways they're actually closer to the spirit of the original myth. Orpheus as he appears in that title track bears more resemblance to a member of Punk's Not Dad than to a tragic hero from Ancient Greece.

Further reading:
  • Reflektor vs. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire albums square off and I choose my favourite
  • The Lyre of Orpheus - Additional thoughts on this half-album and its relationship to the other half, Abattoir Blues
  • 4 Final Orpheuses - Four guesses as to why Orpheus turned around, from a blog called Rejectamentalist Manifesto

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