An acquaintance wrote to me the other day, complaining about Joanna Newsom's newest album, Ys: "She's really showing off."
Exactly! I replied—it' s pretty great, isn't it? Finally, an artist with the confidence and vision to abide by the wonder which she dreams. Ys is a work of faith, the labor of a musician who believes in the possibilities of the album as a medium.
Two years ago, Ms. Newsom came outta some northern California nowhere with a debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, which went gangbusters. The harpist was no hirsute dude with choogle to prove, but the nouveau folk scene still rode her coattails into the media spotlight. The Mills College graduate was portrayed as a sprite, caricatured as a forest maiden, her big harp shouldered like a cross, both literal and figurative. Her voice was strange and boldly squeaky. She sounded like an animal at some times and a precocious child at others, as her voice exploded in sudden blooms and quickly disappeared into a hush. Her songs were hers alone, set to the delicate gallop of her harp and the hiccup of her voice.
In comparison to that spartan debut, Ys is massive. It finds Newsom backed by a 34-piece orchestra of big-name session players, with arrangements by Van Dyke Parks (you may remember him from his work with the Beach Boys). Seesawing strings add depth and hue as glowering French horns rise to solemnly follow the lyrics' lead; the result is regal and ornate. Newsom peacocks her talent and her voice, spreading her bright feathers wide and high. She lays hard into her coos, and phrases sometimes begin with a startled squeak, as if she is peeling out, anxious to put the romance of her words into motion.
As on The Milk-Eyed Mender, she favors alliteration and uses the natural world as her put-upon stage; but here on Ys, her songs are more linear and complex. Epic story poems are laid in seven-, nine-, and sixteen-minute stretches; language, though ornamental, serves the story (and moreover, the song). She stretches and thumps her long A's and E's, tugs her R's, bunts her T's; she flips knotty rhymes while mixing consonantal and vocalic alliteration in order to make a punctuating rhythm, a trick she admittedly cops from Shakespearean sonnets ("While, elsewhere/Estuaries of wax-white/Wend, endlessly, towards seashores unmapped"). The album is vertiginous and begs careful repeated listens, aided by the lyric book (as well as a little after-the-fact Googling). Rather than weighting the songs, her arcane argot merely matches the majestic expanse of Ys.
For all of Ys' proper lace and poesy, Newsom's lyrics belie a certain tumult and struggle, an escape from that which binds. Sporting birds go free, penned animals paw at their gates, a dove puppet turns real and takes to the sky, horses break loose, and broken hearts betray their keepers. Seas and love separate and divide, and not all divides are crossed—martyrdom is maintained as parcel to love. Many of the songs are draped in longing: for knowledge, for another, for a taste of the other side. But even when freedom comes, it is bittersweet; each emancipated breath a reminder of how long one has lived without it.
In the wresting-free, the narrator and her characters encounter their true natures, and those moments yield some of Ys' best lines. Singing on "Sawdust and Diamonds," Newsom sounds fiery (if not a touch disgusted): "I wasn't born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight/No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright." The words are spit with intent and sure purpose, fiercely raised, like a sentinel of self.
On "Monkey and Bear," a melancholy fairy-fable with a monkey anthropomorphized as a jealous boyfriend, the two characters set out for a master-less life in the mountains. But he implores the bear to keep her harness and costume on, so she can dance and support the two of them. When the bear sneaks away to wash her costume off in the river, she reveals the "threadbare coat" underneath: "You'd see spots where/Almost every night of the year/Bear had been mending/Suspending that baseness/Now her coat drags through the water/Bagging, with a life's worth of hunger." By the time the song rises to its urgent conclusion, with a line about the bear burying its teeth, you come to hope that they land in that pimp monkey's neck.
Through all of this, Newsom proves herself a singular talent, not just as the golden-girl anomaly of the underground, or as a harpist nonpareil, but as an artist and gifted writer unafraid of mapping her vision to its very edges.
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