Thou Hast Made a Great Album
The startling, anachronistic world of Joanna Newsom.
To begin listening, really listening, to Joanna Newsom, you must first reckon with her voice, a sound that has clapped many ears shut on first contact. Newsom sings in a high, wavering squeak that even her admirers have compared to Olive Oyl's and Marge Simpson's. Her voice is fuller and more richly burnished now than on her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. I put the current ratio at about 80 percent radiant loveliness to 20 percent harshly grating crow caw. But it still takes some getting used to, and—as with Tom Waits, as with Bob Dylan—there are some listeners who will never get past it.
In large part because of that eccentric voice, Newsom has been associated with the so-called freak-folk movement. The "freak" effect is heightened by the fact that Newsom plays a big, antiquated instrument, the harp, and by her song lyrics, which are reams of pastoral verse, seemingly ripped from the diaries of a long-lost metaphysical poet, packed with archaicisms ("thee," "fain") and tongue-twisting couplets of the sort not generally found in 21st-century pop lyrics, or in the 21st century, period: "My clay-colored motherlessness rangily reclines—/ Come on home now! My bones are dolorous with vines."
But on her stupendous new album, Ys (pronounced "Ees"), Newsom is neither freak nor folk. The five songs on Ys stretch to epic length (the shortest clocks in at seven-plus minutes), but every chord change, harp plink, and poetic conceit is wrought with rigorous craftsmanship. That kind of meticulousness ain't exactly letting your freak flag fly. As for "folk": Sure, Newsom plays an acoustic instrument—albeit one about 10 times larger than the usual folkie guitar—and hints of traditional Celtic and Appalachian music drift up through the songs. But on Ys, she's playing grand, symphonic pop, the kind of stormy music associated with Kate Bush and Björk, who are clearly big influences. The album opening, "Emily," begins with Newsom singing over a tolling harp and string-orchestra pizzicatos. Soon, the full orchestra swoops in, with strings darting and groaning through meter changes, while Newsom sings densely packed, mysterious lines: "And the meteorite's just what causes the light,/ And the meteor's how it's perceived;/ And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void, that lies quiet in offering to thee."
The songs were arranged by Van Dyke Parks, the composer famous for collaborating with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys'Smile. He's written some lovely passages. I'm especially taken with the big contrapuntal swirl —smeary strings, thumping percussion, banjo, and some of Newsom's most Kate Bush-like vocal flights—that comes toward the end of the album's 17-minute-long centerpiece, "Only Skin." Parks' arrangements thicken the colors and enhance the widescreen quality of the music, but they feel unnecessary, tacked on. I suspect that Newsom was concerned that her lengthy songs would drag if they were performed Milk-Eyed Mender-style, with just her and the harp. But the album's one solo harp piece, "Sawdust & Diamonds," shows that Newsom can hold listeners all by herself, even for 10 minutes at a time.
The music on Ys is vivid and melodic, with catchy tunes, and some semblance of verse-chorus structures, lurking in all the rambling songs. But Newsom's words are what really enrapture. The songs are set in rustic landscapes, and they teem with flora and fauna—with "yarrow, heather and hollyhock" that "awkwardly molt along the shore," with "the muddy mouths of baboons and sows, and the grouse, and the horse, and the hen." The overwrought literariness of Newsom's lyrics is something else: She has dared to be the most pretentious songwriter in pop history, and she's pulled it off. Has anyone stuffed songs with more adjectives? "Gibbering wave," "hydrocephalitic listlessness," "insatiable shadow," "Awful atoll—/ O, incalculable indiscreetness and sorrow!" It seems miraculous that she's managed to set this clotted language to such pleasurable music. Only "Monkey & Bear" failed to bewitch me, coming off as too preciously nursery rhymish. But even that song has sublime moments, with lovely Celtic folk-song-style singing from Newsom and some great turns of phrase. ("Then the outside-arms of the bear fell off/ As easy as if sloughed from boiled tomatoes.") And when the language gets trimmer and starker, as in the opening verses of "Emily," Newsom really casts a spell:
There is a rusty light on the pines tonight
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow
Down into the bones of the birches
And the spires of the churches
Jutting out from the shadows
The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow
And everything sloped like it was dragged from a rope
In the mouth of the south below
Modernity rarely intrudes on Newsom's scenes, and the CD packaging, with its Renaissance-style cover portrait, veers close to the hokum of druids-and-dragons '70s rockers. Newsom, though, is not trying to come on like a "faerie princess," as some have written, and she's certainly not singing madrigals. She's not a revivalist, she's an anachronist—like Tom Waits, she has discovered how to produce disorienting and uncanny effects by mashing up the archaic and the modern.
But Newsom has a deeper purpose here. She's told interviewers that Ys is a kind of confessional-allegorical epic, a "shadow world," whose every lyric corresponds to events in her personal life. It's startling to think that this torrent of imagery—all those swooping birds and stableboys and livestock and "felten and grey" mountains—is part of an elaborate personal mythology, and I'm sure that in the coming months and years the Internet will crackle with efforts to break the code.
I doubt the exegetes will get very far. Clear meaning is hard to come by in Ys, but pathos is not. The songs are full of tumultuous emotions—grief, desire, nostalgia—usually couched in Newsom's thick poetry but occasionally erupting in the plainest English. "I miss your precious heart/ And miss, and miss, & miss, & miss, & miss, & miss your heart," she cries in "Cosmia." Undoubtedly these lines relate somehow to the real 21st-century life of Joanna Newsom. But that seems far less interesting to me than the trompe l'oeil, or, I guess, trompe l'oreille, which she has created in Ys—an enchanted, terrible Neverland, a world to get lost in.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Audio excerpts from Ys © 2006 Sub Pop. All rights reserved.