To secure this writing gig here at Treble, I wrote a review of Joanna Newsom’s glorious debut, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, which subsequently dazzled our editor (I exaggerate, surely) and introduced me to the gratification that comes with writing about music. In this current situation, as I sit here and gear up to write about Joanna’s latest creation, Ys, I can’t help but further realize the wonderful position that I am in, what an amazing opportunity it is to be able to write about such a fantastic album, and how much fun this has been thus far. I am in the position to get to know an album on a close and personal basis, to feel it and touch it, and then wax poetic about it to those who happen to read it. Will this make an impact? Will you take away from this review on any level what I have taken away from the album itself? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, the most important message here is what the artist has managed to create, and just how beautiful and intoxicating it truly is.
Joanna’s new album is unusual in structure – spanning the length of 55 minutes with only five songs, it is not meant for casual listening sessions. This is an album for pensive car rides and weighty conversations with new friends, for bringing you to a world outside your work desk where monkeys are afraid of spelunking while discussing scraps of sassafras. This album is an experience all in itself – Joanna is perched on the cover, her hair braided renaissance-style complete with a flowered headdress, holding some sort of medieval weapon, next to a window with a crow overlooking a fairytale canyon (complete with a winding river and clouded mountaintop), leading us into what is meant to represent a storybook of classic folk tales and fables, a.k.a. her songs. At times, I could actually hear the creaking of rocking chairs on the back porch and straw hats chewing on thistles over the plucking of her harp strings (well, not really, but you get the point). The album’s orchestral arrangements, under the direction of Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, are a new addition to Joanna’s repertoire, and are simply breathtaking. The strings, winds, percussion, accordions, guitars and banjos swirl and flutter around Joanna’s harp as they gently lead you down the album’s epic landscape.
Joanna begins the album with what I like to call “Sadie: Part 2” (and for those unfamiliar with Mender, “Sadie” is the heart of the album – playful, nostalgic, heartbreaking, and romantic). “Emily” gently picks up where “Sadie” left off, lightly echoing the original melodies and taking it to the next level, continuing to tell the story while creating a sweeping introduction to a rather in-depth album experience. “Monkey and Bear” is the most unusual story of the album, set to a “Peter and the Wolf”-style orchestral background with children’s book-lyrics about the complicated marriage between (as the title insinuates) a monkey and a bear. Then, with “Sawdust and Diamonds,” we find Joanna’s traditional Mender style, singing in her language from another time and place, about everything and nothing, while accompanied solely by her harp, setting a scene of whirlwind poetry and narrative and a passionate flurry of harp melodies. “Only Skin” and “Cosmia” are of larger-than-life proportions (particularly with the former, which clocks in at just under 17 minutes), shifting from innocent love, to tender affection, to sensual desire, landing at a central point of sweet vulnerability. “Cosmia” proceeds to end the album on a heartbreaking, wistful note — and I miss your previous heart/and I miss your heart,– sung over and over again.
In regards to Joanna’s infamous voice: I suppose there is a childlike quality to her vocals, as many others choose to describe them – but at the exact same time, she sounds just as much like an old wise woman as she does an innocent little girl. This defies a certain sense of categorization and instead demonstrates her assuredness in her wide range of harp, folk, and rock influences, as well as her ability to produce something entirely original. I said it before, and I’ll say it again – her vocals, previously and currently, are so outlandish, so nonsensically sweet and inimitable that they resonate as nothing short of beautiful and completely genuine. And while her vocals for Mender coordinated evenly with her delicate and sweet harp/keyboard arrangements, the addition of the orchestra on Ys are aptly matched by a new, muscular vocal range – she coos and glides and hiccups from measure to measure with her signature gracefulness and a new sense of strength that simply encapsulates the listener.
I don’t know how she does it, but she did. Joanna has managed to surpass herself in a style of musicianship that was already relatively untouchable, which puts her in a category all her own. It’s a simply dazzling sophomore effort, and as long as she continues to make music, I will continue to march in the Joanna Newsom fan parade, especially if it means learning more about fumbling green gentleness and hydrocephalitic listlessness. Who knew?
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