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Joanna Newsom - Ys Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    9
release year:    2006
label:    Drag City
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageAs an artist who sings whimsically vivid lullabies in a little girl’s voice, all the while playing a classical harp while dressed in medieval costume, Joanna Newsom has to fight an uphill battle not to be categorized as a curiosity. Not surprisingly, the groundswell of attention that followed the release of 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender quickly cemented that very caricature of her in the public arena, and her idiosyncrasies soon drowned out discussions of the actual quality of her songwriting and musicianship. Of course, the quickest route to visibility is to make gestures that allow you to stand out from the crowd, and Newsom has benefited endlessly from being the weirdest flower in the field of freak folkies that she and Devendra Banhart made viable for a new generation of listeners. But while she could make a living for years by coasting off her quirks, Newsom considers herself a serious artist, and with Ys she makes the most dangerous move of her career, practically inviting parody with an album that’s so ambitious and over-the-top that she both confirms and confounds expectations all at once.

Comprised of five long songs, Ys is an orchestral concept album that’s far more sprawling and imaginative than even her admittedly impressive debut. The three-minute songs of her first release are gone, here replaced with arrangements ranging from seven to nearly 17 minutes, with her gift for creating fantastical and deeply allegorical character sketches benefiting from a long song format that seems employed specifically to allow her the space necessary to create narratives with a beginning, middle and end. Given such an open template, Newsom brings to life an appropriately eclectic cast ranging from anthropomorphized animals to dying comets and conflicted and war-torn lovers with her ornate (and occasionally inscrutable) verse. But while the stories unfold with a near-hallucinogenic strangeness, the personality of the performances and arrangements are such that one can intuitively understand the spirit with which they are intended. Where Newsom was previously notable for her musicianship and eccentricities, she has now graduated into a complete artist, one with an exceptional sense of theatrics and the ability to accompany each twist in the narrative with an attendant shift in tempo or tone.
With acclaimed arranger and longtime Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks setting up a 33-member orchestra around her deft harp playing and creaky vocals, every nuance and quirk in Newsom’s constantly shifting songs are illustrated with rising and falling dynamics, with strings and horns ready to swirl or flit around her fragile harp plucking and expressive vocals. As before, Newsom’s playing is highly individualized, with songs speeding up and slowing down at unpredictable intervals and her voice bending and cracking to emphasize particularly dramatic turns in her narratives. Opener “Emily” is a study in such subtle dynamics, building from a wide-eyed vocal and solo harp performance into a gorgeous multi-part epic, with the strings dropping out to allow Newsom’s harp to carry unexpected minor chord passages and rejoining to whimsically and poignantly echo every melodic nuance and change in intonation. Delicate and playful but never needlessly gaudy, Parks’ strings are an essential in fulfilling Newsom’s elaborate vision, adding a world of sonic texture to what could have been a bit too ponderous with a less extravagant setting.

Though the sheer complexity of the arrangements is off-putting at different turns, ensuring that the album will not make much sense without multiple listens, Newsom is an exceptional storyteller throughout. Her vivid, highly descriptive writing is executed with a poetic precision, made even more timeless by the fact that she peoples her songs with references and descriptions that have little or no connection to modernity. Like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Newsom writes songs that borrow from the English folk tradition and may require some dictionary assistance, but given the otherworldly and ethereal quality of her performances, such lyrical lavishness only deepens the sense of mystery already inherent in the songs. Eerie multi-tracked vocals provide the intro to “Monkey & Bear,” a clever morality tale that focuses upon a duplicitous monkey who decides to lead a bear away from their lives of toil on the farm, never explaining the consequences or anticipating that the bear might have other plans. Featuring one the album’s most easily remembered melodies, the song (like most in the set) sways back and forth between quiet interludes and dizzying climaxes, creating a song that reveals new meaning with every listen.

Of course, whether one spends enough time with the album to appreciate its nuances and complexity will determine how much one enjoys Ys. The sheer ambition of the songwriting and arranging that is so stunning is also the biggest impediment to grasping exactly what Newsom is doing, with each track unraveling through an almost unfathomable patchwork of amazingly poetic imagery and texturally mesmerizing sonic extravagances. Honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming, even on repeated listens, as even the most immediately engaging arrangements have far more in common with classical composition than they do pop music. Even so, the austere “Only Skin” is understated enough that its simple melodic refrain easily pushes through the orchestral sweep and more noodly passages, just as the nimble harp playing and bucolic imagery of “Cosmia” ends the album by scaling back the orchestration and refocusing on Newsom and her instrument of choice.

To her great credit, Joanna Newsom has chosen to defy caricature not by toning down her peculiarities but by perfecting them to the point that mimicking them is all but impossible. In the process, she has made an album that is without obvious parallel in the American music canon, one that will likely become her definitive release and whose audacity will solidify her status among her generation’s most innovative singer-songwriters. In short, Ys is a perfectly unified work, comprehensive in its execution and cohesive in lyric, sound, and sentiment. It’s the sound of an artist taking hold of her own mythology, creating something bigger than herself in the process.

Recorded by indie uber-producer Steve Albini, mixed by avant-garde experimentalist (and former Sonic Youth member) Jim O’Rourke, and mastered at Abbey Road in London, Ys benefits from the vision of artists who are used to thinking in broad sweeps. As such, the album’s execution is entirely befitting its lofty concept, with the strings vivid and swirling and Newsom’s vocals always high in the mix. The orchestral expanse does occasionally blur together, but that seems to be by design, as the occasional jaw harp or banjo part can come through clearly when songs wander through quieter passages. A classic headphones album.

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