There are a lot of things about Joanna Newsom
There are a lot of things about Joanna Newsom "Ys" that make it so undeniably highbrow. Anybody in or out of the rock world wielding a harp, whether virtuosic or not, is certainly a challenge to unaccThere are a lot of things about Joanna Newsom "Ys" that make it so undeniably highbrow. Anybody in or out of the rock world wielding a harp, whether virtuosic or not, is certainly a challenge to unaccustomed ears. The orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Park are sweeping, complicated and epic. Newsom's heady verses can be entangling and puzzling, a chore for any listener with a short attention span. The songs, all five of them, are narrative and long-form and happen in movements, an unexpected combination of the neo-classical and folk genres.
But then there's that voice. Anybody who has heard Newsom's debut, "The Milk-Eyed Mender," has likely been corralled into love her/hate her camps because of the childish squeaks and warbling, round vowels of darling rhyme schemes. It is this that makes her hyper-literate approach not only tolerable, but all the more pretty: like Bjork, it's her unique voice that can ground the most cosmic melodies and arrangements and then send them back into outer space.
The first track, "Emily," has a very rich texture as well as Newsom's precise phrasing. Lines like "Peonies nod in the breeze/and as they wetly bow/with hydrocephalitic listlessness/ants mop up their brow" simply tumble out of her mouth, as though they were a well-known nursery rhyme. "Monkey & Bear" and "Cosmia" follow hypnotic harp lines with addictive vocal melodies that thematically repeat. "Only Skin" meanders a lot in 17 minutes, though it also offers the quietest spaces of the whole album.
The lone track that returns to the just-voice-and-harp sound of the debut is "Sawdust & Diamonds," and the fragility of its metaphors and words are heightened by the arrangement. "Ys" also benefits from the expert touch of engineer Steve Albini, who lends a very warm tone to this very exhausting, but immensely rewarding album. -- Katie Hasty