i have a question...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Joanna Newsom is a word nerd. Which I’m pretty sure is what makes her such a startling lyricist. Her second album “Ys” was introduced to me during a wonderful day last December, when my old college roommate and her boyfriend made me breakfast. I knew if I listened to the album more carefully, it would probably dissolve me into tears.

Newsom is both harpist and vocalist on this complicated album. The album is comprised of only 5 songs, most of which clock in over 10 minutes. Each song is so intricately written, both lyrically and instrumentally, it’s hard to encapsulate each one in a paragraph.

“Emily” begins like a dirge. It struck me as some of the most melancholy singing ever and within the first line, she throws the word “chim-choo-ree” at us. Then suddenly the orchestrations hit at such a strong force, the first time I heard it, I nearly had to choke back a sob. That effect hasn’t really decreased any, after many more listens. It’s so intensely visceral, whirling and speeding towards a climax but never reaching it. Newsom’s songs are so wordy, you have to look up the lyrics to appreciate them. “The meteorite is a source of the light/And the meteor's just what we see/And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.” Or how about “You came and lay a cold compress upon the mess I’m in/Threw the window wide and cried: Amen! Amen! Amen!” Newsom’s voice is odd; it rises and falls from the squeak of an 8-year-old to the alto hum of an old woman. Sometimes she sounds like Bjork. Sometimes she sounds like she’s whistling, but it’s coming from her throat.

“Monkey and Bear” is the second track and begins sounding like a madrigal. It’s a winding tale about a monkey and bear escaping and in love. Newsom’s rhyming here is astounding, “Your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture/When the blackbirds hear tea whistling, they rise and clap/And their applause caws the kettle black
And we can't have none of that!/Move along, Bear; there, there; that’s that.” Her voice scoops from a bass to bursts of young joy as she sings to the others to dance. There is an Asian melodic theme present, perhaps due to the abundance of strings—she is, after all, a harpist. And this song includes the only use of the word “spelunking” I’ve ever heard in a musical recording.

On “Sawdust and Diamonds,” Newsom accompanies herself on harp alone. This track begins with a chant and returns to the chant at the end. She sings here of a long lost love and the search for him forevermore. This track is probably my least favorite and I think it’s because of the blatant lack of orchestrations. We are left instead to interpret the puzzling lyrics.

“Only Skin” is the longest track on the album and my favorite. In listening to it again for this post, it was hard to nail down why it’s my favorite, especially because it’s over 16 minutes long. We hear references to previous tracks with the melodies. (This is an album you must listen to in entirety; it is not comprised of singles.) These orchestrations sound like they should be part of an epic, haunting and sweet film; they are full and symphonic, begging to be performed in a grander scheme. This song also features the only male voice on the whole album, in a gradually more frantic call-and-response, ending with “Come across the desert with no shoes on!/I love you truly, or I love no-one.” The song resolves with Newsom playing alone on her harp, followed by one more frenetic burst of the orchestra.

“Cosmia” features the most conclusive melody of any on the album. Newsom repeats “And I miss your precious heart” over and over throughout the song. Suddenly in the middle, an irish jig begins. And the tune (and the album) then ends, unresolved.

These songs are strange and long, but startlingly written so they make up 50 minutes of time well spent.


Rachiewrites said...

Great column, and it motivated me to sample some of her music. I expect it's an acquired taste?

Ilana said...

Have you heard 'Peach, Plum, Pear'? I kind of adore it.