One should never, and I mean never, use the word “poet” lightly — not with creative writing majors, not with Rod McKuen, and certainly not with popular music artists. But I feel confident after immersing myself in Joanna Newsom’s much-anticipated Ys, that Ms. Newsom is indeed a poet, particularly because she meets one criteria of poet-dom better than just about anyone writing lyrics today. To write poetry does not require a supernatural, deeper-than-thou ability to experience emotion. It requires, among other things, a love for language for its own sake, not just as a means for expressing one’s feelings. Real poets care about words, and on Ys, Joanna Newsom pays true homage to their shapes, sounds, and power to elicit emotion, not just describe it. Ys the album is as epic as the legend of Ys, the mythical city of ancient Brittany. Five songs sprawl for a total of 55 minutes, demanding much of today’s set-it-and-forget-it listening audience, but rewarding it oh so greatly.
Although the shortest song on Ys, “Cosmia”, is over seven minutes long, the album is surprisingly brisk. Newsom’s compositions are full of such varied textures and moods that the danger is not that they will lose your attention, but that they will demand it. In fact, it is difficult for me to write this review and listen to Ys at the same time because my focus is pulled inexorably towards the songs, even after a month of nearly unbroken listening. Much of this has to do with the way the album was recorded. Newsom recorded her voice and harp in Chicago with Steve Albini. The tapes were then sent to the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who assembled an orchestra of strings and horns, as well as mandolin, banjo, electric guitar, accordion, even a horse skull, to color inside and outside the lines of Newsom’s songs. But rather than go back and re-record Newsom’s parts once the orchestration was laid down, the choice was made to keep those takes for their inherent intimacy and improvisatory nature. Thus the album’s recording features the best of two worlds, both the natural vulnerability of the solo performer and the dynamic and full production provided by Parks.
The songs themselves are stunning, timeless, triumphs of wonder and imagination. “Emily” draws much of its initial power from a somber, repeated melody offset by the rich textures of Newsom’s playful internal- and slant-rhymes.
There is a rusty light on the pines tonight; sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow,
Down into the bones of the birches, and the spires of the churches, jutting out from the shadows;
The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks, and the bale, and the barrow —
And everything sloped, like it was dragged from a rope, in the mouth of the south below.
Orchestral strings flit and dance around Newsom’s harp and voice like helpful sprites, melting away the long minutes, closely accompanying the narrative a la Peter and the Wolf. The essence of “Emily” is a tribute to sisterhood (Newsom’s sister Emily sings backup vocals on the track), expressed through the geographical language of both heaven and earth, “We’ve seen those mountains kneeling, felten and grey,” “You taught me the names of the stars overhead…/ Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades, loosed in December.” Within the context of its story, the song even features an educational rhyme for remembering the difference between meteors, meteorites, and meteoroids. Skeptics might wonder what’s the use of lines like “Peonies nod in the breeze / And as they wetly bow with hydrocephalitic listlessness / Ants mop up their brow,” but there is definite purpose beyond novelty (and why shouldn’t one’s lyrics be novel?). Newsom positions her relationship with Emily in the grandest scheme possible: eternity. Between terrestrial life (“Butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours) and the machinery of the universe (“Pa pointed out to me, the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light”), all things are impermanent, and love and life all the more precious.
We could stand for a century, staring, with our heads cocked,
In the broad daylight, at this thing:
Joy, landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —
Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,
Till we don’t be.
If we can make room for ten thousand “Eat, drink, and be merry” songs, we should be able to make room for this longer, more thoughtful exposition.
“Sawdust & Diamonds” explores the concepts of desire, creativity, death, and love, with similar intensity. The only track on Ys not to feature orchestral accompaniment, the song is the album’s stark and beautiful fulcrum. It begins with a question, possibly to God, “From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs / Through the rest of my life / Do you wait for me there?” Regardless, Newsom once again finds herself caught between love of life’s details and the inevitability of death. At once, she is so enamored with life she is about to burst, describing her own musical performance:
There’s a light in the wings, hits the system of strings
From the side, where they swing —
See the wires, the wires, the wires.
And the articulation in our elbows and knees
Makes us buckle;
We couple in endless increase
As the audience admires.
Moments later, she is nearly paralyzed by dread:
And the moment I slept, I was swept up in a terrible tremor.
Though no longer bereft, how I shook! And I couldn’t remember.
Then the furthermost shake drove a murthering stake in,
And cleft me right down through my center.
But ultimately her choice is against depression, to embrace the fleeting pleasures of existence, and to convince others to do the same, “And though our bones they may break, and our souls separate — why the long face?/ And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil — why the long face?” The song, clear-eyed and direct, provides an emotional journey and exploration unlike any other in popular music — because both its musical and verbal language allow listeners to make discoveries for themselves, to mine new readings and surprises with each listen. Likewise with the Aesopian narrative “Monkey & Bear”, the forlorn “Cosmia”, and the grand “Only Skin”, all of which I’m savoring the slow unraveling.
So, particularly with regards to its rating, is Ys an album for which I can guarantee enjoyment? No more than any other. Obviously, Newsom’s voice has already been allotted classic “acquired taste” status. Vibrant, wild, and willful, prone to soaring and squeaking, it has drawn comparisons to old women, little girls, Bjork, Ethel Merman, even Olive Oyl, and been described as bizarre and exotic. But Newsom’s voice, at least to me, has more in common with the likes of Texas Gladden and Maggie Hammons, who used their instruments simply as vehicles for storytelling. For my money, Newsom has demonstrated more nuance, depth of feeling, and originality than a hundred bedazzling pop divas. Here’s why: right now, there is no one who could perform the songs on Ys as well as their author, regardless of vocal range, tone, or years spent under the tutelage of the most sought-after trainers. These are her stories, and as she recently expressed in an interview, they were not written with even the hopes that anyone would listen to them, let alone enjoy them. They were written because they had to be. The result, I believe, is a singular work of art whose power will only grow over time.