This was a tough one to create a genre tag for. Joanna Newsom is not for the pop music junkie but rather for the indie music connoisseur. If that sounds snobby and hipsterish…well, it kind of is. But at least there are no pretenses about what to expect. Newsom’s weapon of choice is the Celtic harp. Also, Pitchfork adores her. That will tell you whether you want to give her work a go or not.
So let’s say you’re sort of into indie. The reason I make the distinction of connoisseur is because Joanna Newsom is very much an acquired taste. I think would be easier for a new listener to get into her more recent work. But the further back you go, especially to her early early work, the more difficult the task becomes. Joanna Newsom’s voice (pre-vocal cord nodule-removal) is very harsh and untamed. Personally, I still enjoy it because it has a lot of raw emotion in it. I like that it’s unbridled. Though that may be why she got vocal cord nodules in the first place…
Okay, so now let’s say you’ve accepted that and are ready to get into Ys (pronounced like the -eece in Greece). This is not an album you just throw on and listen to. It’s something you have to set aside time for. With just five tracks totaling about 56 minutes, this is no easy listening. Every song is like an epic poem. The shortest track is 7 minutes and 17 seconds. The longest, just 6 seconds shy of 17 minutes. Listening to Ys is like settling down to read an entire novel start to finish, or watching all 3 Lord of the Rings films back-to-back without pausing. Okay, it’s not THAT long, but you get the idea.
I’m not making this album sound very appealing, am I? But it’s really good! It’s was highly acclaimed when it was released in 2006. It’s like a musical work of art. Joanna’s vocals, while still a little wild at times, improved from her earlier work (The Milk-Eyed Mender was just 2 years prior). She moves gracefully from feral yelping at times to angelic warbling. And the orchestration is just perfect. It does a great job of providing the background scenery while Joanna and her harp take center stage. It’s not distracting at all. Everything blends together wonderfully.
The first track “Emily” was the first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard. It swept me up, emotionally. Not just with the melodies but with the lyrics too. I’ll never forget the first time I heard “And everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk and dour/The butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours” or how it made me feel. The whole song is about her sister Emily and her relationship with her. As Emily is an astrophysicist, themes of astronomy come up consistently throughout the song, something I really enjoy, even if she does mix up meteorites and meteoroids.
“Monkey and Bear” is another great epic. Right away, it sounds like a children’s story. The playful flute and backing orchestra seem to support this. This is one worth really listening to for the progression of the story because it becomes a dark cautionary tale by the end. It’s like a classic Grimm’s fairy tale, not the Disney version. The structure of the melodies perfectly match the lyrics. It really is built like a story.
“Sawdust & Diamonds” is beautiful, but I am always at a loss when I try to think about what it’s about. I tend to just stop and listen. It might be because it’s so minimal compared to the rest of the album. It’s just Joanna and her harp. I do have to say, though, that my favorite lyric is “I wasn’t born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight./No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright.” It’s just so vivid. I picture Joanna as some kind of faun stumbling into existence. It’s very fantastical.
“Only Skin” is the longest song and the one that requires the most dedication. It feels like a series of stories – That is to say, there is a LOT going on here. I really don’t know how to sum this one up. But these are some of my favorite lyrics:
“The sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl.”
“Scrape your knee; it is only skin/Makes the sound of violins.”
“I have washed a thousand spiders down the drain/spiders ghosts hang soaked and danglin’/silently from all the blooming cherry trees.”
It’s easy to get lost in this one. The music shifts just as much as the lyrics. It can’t be said that it’s lacking in depth. You kind of just have to let this song take you by the hand, and you must go willingly.
We close with “Cosmia,” a really dark and bitter-sounding song. It’s sad and angry at the same time. It’s paranoid and deranged. There’s a lot of emotion going on here, and it’s all very pushy and pleading. She sings “Can you hear me? Will you listen?/Don’t come near me, don’t go missing” with just the right amount of indecisive psychosis. Supposedly it was about the loss of a good friend of hers, and the mental toll it had on her. I’d say she did a pretty good job of conveying that.
To summarize what I’ve said since the start, Ys is not an album to be taken lightly. It is a masterpiece, but I wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. Instead, I’d say start with Have One on Me and work your way backwards. I think you’ll appreciate Ys a lot more.