Joanna Newsom – Ys

Utterly unlike anything else you’ll hear, it is a brave, barking mad and beautiful album.

Utterly unlike anything else you’ll hear, it is a brave, barking mad and beautiful album.


Joanna Newsom – Ys


I was reading something the other day that really annoyed me. The writer suggested that Joanna Newsom was somehow a sell-out in terms of the ‘new weird folk revival’ that appears to be happening both here and America. As though a five track hour-long album by a singer-songwriter and harpist could somehow be battling it out with Beyonce or whoever at the top of the charts. It’s this kind of woolly thinking that bedevils any scene (or perhaps, more properly, those who write about it). Joanna Newsom might not sound like Jackie-O Motherfucker but that hardly puts her in the same bracket as the Sugababes. Although it would be nice to think that she could be, because music (for some people at least) is about enjoyment, and fun, and not all about putting oneself through hoops to prove how great one is by being able to ‘take’ really ‘difficult’ stuff. These latter types of people don’t realise that they are just the equivalent of the boors (and bores) who go into curry houses and ask for vindaloos just because they need to have something difficult to eat. It also opens them up for accusations of emperor’s new clothes (or perhaps cloth ears), as they will take any unlistenable racket to be the work of avant-garde geniuses.


Hey ho. So, anyway, here we have five long tracks based around Joanna Newsom and her harp. And the first thing to point out is Newsom’s voice. Let’s put it like this: it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I’d describe it thus: imagine a six-year-old girl trying to copy Beth Gibbons (who, as far as I can tell, is trying to copy Nina Simone). It can be a bit off-putting at first. But, as you may already know, there is more to this album than Joanna and her harp. Steve Albini recorded the two of them. Van Dyke Parks wrote instrumental backing. Jim O’Rourke helped mix it. And Newsom and Parks produced it.


I know.


So perhaps it is not the kind of folly I first suggested it is, but it is still unlike anything else you’ll have heard by a country mile. And it is completely brilliant.


The album opens with the twelve minute Emily. Joanna and harp kick things off before strings float around the background. Despite the fact that the orchestration can be very lush at times it is noticeable that all it does is embellish. The catches, and hooks, are all there in the songs themselves. It is not the case that the orchestra is used to bolster lightweight songs. No, the joy of the album doesn’t actually lie with the men involved: the joy lies with the strength of Newsom’s songs. Even if the orchestration were removed Emily would still be full of tunes, swoons and soaring refrains. The song also displays a great lightness of touch, such as when a banjo suddenly intervenes towards the end of the track.


Oddly enough, for an album as studiously ‘out there’ as Ys is, it is not the length of the songs, or the voice, or the orchestration that has divided people – it is the lyrics. Happily I’ve not had the lyrics to look at. I don’t mean that in a bad way, merely that people seem to have driven themselves to distraction by the fact that she says ‘thee’ a couple of times, and that she uses relatively arcane language. Well, what of it? (I say thee in the pub – ed)


Anyway, even without being able to pick up on all the lyrical nuances it is clear that the album is filled with startling imagery and it is the density of the words and the stories they tell that is one of the album’s charms.  No doubt it is the second song, Monkey and Bear, that is too much for some people. At first it seems to tell of a love story between the two animals of the title. Indeed, it is immediately apparent that Parks’ work on this song is far more playful than on Emily and gives it the sort of backing that a nursery rhyme requires (think of Eagle and Me from Song Cycle). But the song soon darkens and so the backing changes too. I’m still not sure what goes on but I know that things don’t work out too well.


If proof of the quality of the songs were needed it comes on Sawdust and Diamonds as this song features no orchestral backing and instead is dominated by glistening waves of harp. Only Skin clocks in at seventeen minutes and not even this song outstays its welcome. It also features Ms Newsom’s current squeeze Mr Smog himself, Bill Callahan, on backing vocals (although only after about fourteen minutes). And a final word about the songs – these are genuine songs in the sense that each forms an organic whole – they are not three or four different songs stitched together.


Enough. Despite of everything, or because of everything, this is a wonderful album. Utterly unlike anything else you’ll hear, it is a brave, barking mad and beautiful album. It is such a leap from her previous album, Milk-Eyed Mender, that one can only wonder at what might come next.


Words: Chris Dawson.