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White Noise: 4 Great Albums for Winter: #4 - Joanna Newsom

Saturday, 10 December 2011

4 Great Albums for Winter: #4 - Joanna Newsom



Sawdust & Diamonds


It’s been quite difficult for me to set about writing this review because for me Ys is an album unlike any other. Although I spend all my time reviewing dance and electronic music, Joanna Newsom and her music has always been very special to me; in fact she’s a musician for whom I have more respect than any other. There are many reasons for this: hers was the first music I truly loved, her beautiful poetry appealed to my literary side, and then there was the fact that the gentle orchestration was far less alienating than much of the ‘cool’ music when I first started getting involved. But more than anything, it’s because of the quality of her music, of her lyrics, of her voice. Joanna Newsom stands alone as an utterly uncompromising artist carving her own path through contemporary culture. Every song she commits to record is a cryptic jewel, requiring dedicated application in order to fully understand and appreciate. And though she’s an alienating artist at first listen, I’ve never encountered music as rewarding as hers, and I’ve chosen Ys because it is perhaps the best example of these qualities.

While her first and third albums, The Milk-Eyed Mender and Have One On Me, are still some of the greatest albums in my collection, Ys asks more of its listener, and in return it gives more back. The suite of five songs, in the style of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, mostly drift around the 10-minute mark, with the sprawling epic Only Skin stretching to an incredible 17 minutes. Each is packed with complex lyrical sequences, cryptic poetry and a symphonic musical style which travels in new directions constantly with little recourse to a verse-chorus-verse structure. It sounds like a demanding listen, and by all means it is, but there’s simply no other album for which I can say - I’ve been listening to it at least weekly for five years and it still gives me something new to love and admire every single time.

On her debut album, Newsom produced a collection of sweet and intricate folk songs, with poetic lyrics and nimble harp-playing that had quite a rootsy feel to it. On Ys, her musical style less evolved and more catapulted into an emotional and poetic widescreen; slight yet eloquent lyrics were now sprawling 15-minute narratives, her squeaky voice now stretched impressively across a range of emotions and tones, and her solo harpistry was now an entire orchestra, scored by none other than Van Dyke Parks. The vinyl release of Ys formed a book, with the inside sleeves forming pages of lyrics beautifully laid out, and the format is a perfect expression of how her music should be enjoyed; as stories of near-infinite depth to dive into. Her songs provide a perfect soundtrack to long wintry days, and consistently open up huge words to explore.

According to Newsom, the album deals with four separate events that happened to her over the course of the year, and if this is the case it must been a very busy year. Despite her loquacious lyrics and the surface impression of sweetness; each of these songs surprise in both thematic complexity and the level of darkness of subject matter at their heart. This darkness displays itself not in gratuitous or obvious lyrics, but through deep-run emotional turmoil and confusion, to powerful effect. The first song, Emily, is essentially a confessional letter to Newsom’s sister (who sings backing vocals), which details the complexities of their relationship.  Here I’ll offer a brief overview of the song’s themes and story just to exemplify how beautifully wrought and rewardingly deep her lyrics are.

Newsom explores with beautiful eloquence the landscape of her hometown and offers carefully chosen vignettes; telling interactions between the two that explore certain aspects of their relationship. While the ways in which the two help each other are clear, ‘you came and laid a cold compress upon the mess I’m in’, the narrator finds it difficult to reconcile her feelings of growing up and directionlessness, ‘the lines are fading in my kingdom...grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen’, with her desire to be independent. At the same time she explores her unconditional love and respect for her older sister, who she also to some extent perceives as having left their home behind. These conflicted feelings are expressed exquisitely, such as in the assonant line ‘the ties that bind / they are barbed and spined / and hold us close forever’, and are followed by a quiet plea for Emily to return home. Newsom begins with a sweetly sung demand, ‘come on home, the poppies are all grown knee-deep by now’ but quickly the idyll sours, and suddenly ‘everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk and dour / butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours / and my clay-coloured motherlessness rangily reclines / come on home, now! / all my bones are dolorous with vines’. The desperation in her request for her sister to come home becomes rapidly apparent, demonstrated musically and lyrically with phenomenal emotional power. The final image of the two sisters staring to the heavens, staring ‘at this thing / joy / landlocked / in bodies that don’t keep / dumbstruck with the sweetness of being / til we don’t be’ contains a poetry and a philosophical profundity practically unimaginable as mere lyrics to a song. For while the lovely melodies of Emily will stay in your head, and her voice is a gorgeous thing to behold, Newsom’s lyrics can be analysed at the level of high poetry and there’s still almost always more to see.

It would take ten essays to get my teeth properly into the meanings of these songs, but for the sake of the review format I’ll cut it short. Second track Monkey & Bear is an allegorical fairytale that is highly interpretable, but on the surface is clearly the story of a manipulative relationship. Newsom toys with the ideas of being natural and staying true to yourself, with the animals’ complex relationship fleshed out magnificently across the course of the song. Bear’s final act, to wade into the sea and transcend her physical form, as she ‘shed the mantle of her diluvian shoulders / and with a sigh she allowed the burden of belly to drop like an apronfull of boulders’, is a gloriously ambiguous ending, and Newsom also always keeps a keen eye on the sounds of the words themselves, reeling off stunning lines such as ‘in the magnetic embrace / balletic and glacial of Bear’s insatiable shadow’ as if she was simply born to express herself perfectly.

The glittering gem at the centre of Ys is Sawdust & Diamonds, where Newsom removes the orchestra and lays her poly-rhythmic harp patterns bare for the audience to hear.  More cryptic and gorgeous lyrics hint at a long-standing relationship that has lost its passion, and through more abstract lyrics she conjures intimate images that, in sequence, tell of the her internal conflicts and eventual decision to leave her lover.  Here she compares herself and her lover to marionettes, holding the secret to their love in the form of a dove which, when torn open, reveals itself to be full not of a magical secret to their love, but of sawdust and diamonds, two entirely physical and un-mystical components. Again her lyrics will stay with you for a long time as beautiful poetry, as she dwells on the sad face of her love; ‘though our bones they make break, and our souls separate – why the long face? / and though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil – why the long face?’ Elsewhere single lines offer stunning and layered readings into the song, whether it be all she sacrifices for her love, ‘though my wrists and my waist seemed so easy to break / still, my dear, I would have walked you to the very edge of the water’, or a simple loaded sentence such as ‘say my name in the morning, so I know when the wave breaks’.

I’ve been having trouble keeping these track summaries short, and this will prove hardest of all with fourth track Only Skin, a goliath undertaking which is arguably Newsom’s greatest song. The narrative here, again highly interpretable, seems to me the story of being ‘the other woman’, a mistress whose unconditional love is not enough to win her lover away from his spouse. The emotions and poetry in this song alone contain the scope and complexity of a classic novel, from the perfectly conjured opening dream sequence to the closing duet with then-boyfriend Bill Callahan, where her absolute love is shown nowhere more concisely than in the line ‘take my bones / I don’t need none’.

The closing track Cosmia is a real heartbreaker, dealing with the death of Newsom’s best friend Cassie, to whom Ys is dedicated. The recurring image of moths fluttering around an artificial lamp is a flawless analogue for human existence, with the friend seeing a ‘true light’ and transcending life rather than merely dying; ‘water were your limbs and the fire was your hair / and then the moonlight caught your eye / and you rose through the air’. The song deals with the extraordinary process of grief with the level of sophistication and tenderness that the subject deserves, bringing the conflicting thoughts of a mind in grief to life more clearly and with more truth than any other piece of art I've encountered on the subject.

I stated at the opening of this review that it would be difficult to write, but more than anything it’s frustrating. For me, as for any lover of literature, it will be frustrating to have to stop talking about Newsom’s music and lyrics, because there is always more to say. The album came out nearly five years ago today, and to date is definitively the best record I’ve ever heard. When words, ideas and musical styles are brought together so perfectly track after track, it’s a shame to ever stop discussing or to stop listening. Thankfully, I don’t ever have to.


4 Great albums for winter:

#4 - Joanna Newsom

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At 10 December 2011 at 18:50 , Blogger Tomas said...

I've been listening to Ys for about four years and I've learnt a lot about the songs through this analysis! I guess I'm not pro-active enough in interpreting the songs I've listened to a hundred times over. But still, this is testament to Joanna's songwriting: you can let the great experience of Ys wash over you, or you can lose yourself between the layers of her beautifully-crafted poetry. Because it is poetry. I don't care what anyone says.

At 10 December 2011 at 19:36 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

Agreed man. I only wish I could've gone into ever further detail.


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