Saturday, February 4, 2012

Joanna Newsom: Ys (2006)

(Drag City)


Here's an instance of an artist I love taking me on a journey I'd probably be unwilling to travel under most circumstances. Two years ago in this space, I spent a lot of time attempting to gauge and interpret the conceptual meaning of Newsom's Have One on Me, a record I cherish immensely -- but when I imagine doing the same for Ys, despite its relative brevity, I'm too intimidated and a little sleepy. It's fascinating to journey back four years in time to arrive at this, this strange figure encased in something for an otherworldly and intimately sprawling experience that seems so far removed from the earthy, funny Newsom of Have One or the young smart melodicist of The Milk Eyed Mender. This record is meant to be art, to mean something, and I can't pretend I feel qualified to speak to all that. But I love it just the same.

Newsom seems distant, cautious here; the music's more precisely arranged than on her other two albums, and the tracks tend to be immersive and wandering. There are only periodic injections of what now seems her typical vocal warmth, but those moments are the key to the record. And what is the story of this album? I went and checked at SongMeanings to see what I could find out and came away disappointed; instead of debating about the imagery in "Emily," the fans there would prefer to question whether it's even a "song" or is in fact "so much more." I blush when I read Newsom rhyming "see" with "thee" and mixing up astronomy terms in her high-minded poetry. The lyrics are felt, but throughout this record there's a creative distance, an absence of the kind of personal spark and messy emotion that bleeds through on her best songs, "Occident" to "This Side of the Blue," so that I tend to want to ignore these lyrics with the overly practiced hint of the artfully protective. The clues to what Joanna Newsom is thinking are in her voice, and it's the voice that makes these words moving, not so artificial, not so writerly and impersonal.

Musically, Ys is her most ambitious effort so far, which in some ways should brand it a piece of arts & crafts folky prog rock, and admittedly there's a touch of that -- I'm not convinced pop songs should have movements, nor do I really feel that any song that's not "Sister Ray" has much business prattling on for a quarter hour. But I also feel hypnotized by this music in a sense that flags only a couple of times during the fifty-five minutes. There are only five songs here, each with moments that seem as stirringly beautiful as any kind of modern American music gets, helped along by two crucial contraditions: that between the cerebral and the heartfelt, and the unadorned versus the meticulously arranged.

Ys, as proven on the tour Newsom went on to promote it, owes a good deal to Appalachian folk music and benefits from a stark instrumental setup. Newsom forgoes the piano for the album's duration, lingering at the harp from start to finish. In an alternate version released the following year of "Cosmia," you can hear what the songs sound like in the banjo-driven getup she took out on the road. The song seems more personal but somehow less absorbing and beautiful; is the surface-level florid gloriousness of the album preferable, or is the feeling (so prominent on the other two albums) that Newsom is exorcising something? Either way, there's no denying that Steve Albini's clean, crystal-clear approach to the sonics of Newsom's performance is a cut above the aural quality of what we've heard before and since from her, and the dream collaboration with Van Dyke Parks here with his constantly twisting and unpredictable strings and perfectly complementary ideas is a good fit for these songs, actually a far better fit than his more famous joint venture with a pop A-lister.

The best Newsom moments for me, as implied, are not just gorgeous but smart and witty and deeply affecting. After a fresh listen to Ys, I find that my issues with it (the prog flatness of "Monkey & Bear" despite its irresistible Andrews Sisters intro, the audacious overlength of "Only Skin" despite its fine lyrics and dreamlike conclusion) have deepened over the years... but so has my appreciation of those moments on which something really felt and moving bursts through, almost always in the vocals. The small moments are rewarding: the way she sings the line "being a woman" on "Only Skin" redeems all sixteen minutes; her gradual transformation from whispering respectability to fuck-all abandon on "Emily," the drama that gives that song its loving thrust. But the big ones are, well, huge. "Sawdust & Diamonds" sounds like a Leonard Cohen song but with an undercurrent of optimism he wouldn't allow, and there's never been a better showcase for her voice. She purrs and bites like Björk (uncannily at times) and the song lets her really break, really get lost in a moment like nothing until "Occident" in 2010 would allow for so extended a time.

And is "Cosmia" the best Joanna Newsom song? I'm extremely partial to "This Side of the Blue," which rescued me in more than one dark moment, but there's something about the seductive spirit in this song trying to embrace enormous concepts of life and death and flittering toward the light -- it's her best melody, her best and warmest pure expression of an idea, and during its seven minutes nothing can convince you that Ys isn't incredibly valuable. "Sawdust & Diamonds" and "Cosmia" alone transcend every quibble about the record, with "Emily" serving as a backup. No matter how you feel about the lofty and sometimes oversized ambitions of this album, it's likely that something about it will win you over and keep you returning. It's unquestionably the most difficult and flawed of the three LPs, but hey, there's value in that too.

Have One on Me (2010)

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