Tag Archives: Joanna Newsom

Leaving the City

It looks like I may be right about Joanna Newsom’s forthcoming album Divers being a more experimental work, because this second single (“Leaving the City”) is truly unlike anything else she’s ever done before. That’s not hyperbole. I honestly can’t compare this to any other song or even just general thematic sound from any album she’s done before. This is a flirtation with rock – a surprise coming from Newsom, but a very pleasant one!

Her weapon of choice – the Celtic harp – still has a strong presence throughout the track, but now we also get some kind of synthy sound (a Mellotron maybe? I’ll be honest, that’s based on quick research with little details. I have no idea what that instrument is), a bit of piano, some heavy drums, and something called a Marxophone. It makes for a very dark and sinister song. I was listening some thunder and wind noises from one of my favorite sites and all combined it gave me chills.

Now I’m pretty sure Newsom did move fully from New York City to LA (she bought a house out here a year or so ago with husband Andy Samberg), so maybe that’s what this song is about? It seems likely. “I believe in you./Do you believe in me?/What do you want to do?/Are we leaving the city?” It makes for an interesting contrast to the lilting playfulness of “Sapokanikan” which was definitely about NYC. I don’t think this song is about LA so much as it is about the move though. I am excited to see if she does have a song about LA though! I mean, she’s from California, but Northern California specifically – a teeny tiny little place called Nevada City. So who knows? I’m just excited in general to see what comes next.

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Sapokanikan

Stop the presses! Joanna Newsom has started making noise again! Gosh, how did I almost miss this one? Well, when an artist goes five years between albums (and doesn’t have any social media accounts or even their own website – just a page on their record label’s site), I guess it takes some time before the news reaches a fan. All I knew over those past five years was that she got married to Andy Samberg and bought a house in LA that Charlie Chaplin used to live in.

And so we have “Sapokanikan,” the first single from her upcoming album Divers!

It reminds me a lot of her very early work, at least vocally. There’s a lot of acrobatics and lilting and wild abandon going on here. Yet lyrically it makes me think of Ys. Though this track isn’t nearly as long as the shortest one on that album, it still has that epic poetic lyrical structure – there’s hardly a pause between verses. It’s really hard to pin down this one. It sounds like this album is going to be more experimental.

It’s hard for me to say what any Joanna Newsom song is about. This is usually because of that epic lyrical structure I mentioned earlier. It usually takes a lot of listens before I get a feel for it. And even then, a Joanna Newsom song requires more research, as she makes a lot of references to history, literature, and myths. Yeah, it’s a little hipstery, but if you can get over it, it makes for great music that transcends the casualness of most rock and pop. I’m sorry, that sounded pretty hipstery too. I can say that Sapokanikan refers to the Native American name given to the land that eventually became Greenwich Village in NYC. So it seems that this song is a musing on the history of the area. If you want a good breakdown, I’d head over to Genius. They’re usually pretty good about this kind of stuff.

As for the video itself, it makes me think of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” but in NYC, of course. It’s somehow fitting for Joanna Newsom to be prancing and skipping through the big city as she sings. The song certainly doesn’t make me think of NYC, but that just makes it all the more interesting. She should seem out of place and overwhelmed (coming from the little bitty town of Nevada City, California) but she’s not phased at all and seems comfortable as she winds her way through shops and parks. I like it.

This is probably not a good starter Joanna Newsom song for a newcomer – but if you’re a fan and you, like me, have somehow missed out on it, get to listening! And prepare yourself for something very new and different. I’m excited to see what October 23rd brings.

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Ys

Ys_cover

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.

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