Review Summary: The Southern Gothic tradition continued.
Even though I will always champion the avant-garde and the experimental, there are also those artists who refine and recapture the old guard in a way that feels timeless. Joanna Newsom's approach to harp is much the same as Faulkner's approach to literature: It is both modern and gothic, belonging to a tradition and yet completely singular. Van Dyke Parks, who plundered the troves of American Traditional music and embedded his own mark onto it, was called on to provide string arrangements for Ys, drawing a thread between Parks' underrated output and Newsom. Despite this presence, this remains Joanna's statement throughout.
There resides an affected sobriety in Ys - an angelic quality that some might label "quaint" in an attempt to call to mind all the wrong images. To some minds, Ys is overbearingly feminine, but the music itself never folds upon scrutiny. That's the line Newsom draws in the sand; she may be vulnerable but her music is powerful. Others will point directly to its ornaments as kitsch, but where it succeeds is breathlessly straddling the border between nostalgic beauty and schmaltz.
That certain audience in the independent music community who loves Mclusky and cynically sees the best the scene has to offer is earnest directness. It's the musical equivalent of Hemmingway's more closed-minded followers wishing to throw away any gesture too contingent. The masculine brusqueness of Gang of Four is nowhere to be found on Ys, and instead Newsom places emphasis on the minute details. The album breathes to life in its crescendos that feel like hours unfurled into just a few seconds. Newsom's talent for harmony is completely unparalleled, she and Parks find every perfect shade and nuance in their orchestration beside Newsom's dextrous playing.
Then there's the wordiness of the album. That verbosity also demands attention to detail. There are labyrinths and narratives in Newsom's sometimes archaic poetry, a chellenge to iPod-era listeners to actually listen. Musically, the album breathes in a way that too few musicians allow their music to breathe. Lyrically, it unfolds upon repeated listens.
Space is sacred for Newsom, as it was for Talk Talk, and filling it with anything; words, harp, orchestra, is done with religious reverence. In "Emily," for instance, Newsom and her cohorts build harmonies and lines around the words Newsom sings. On "Monkey & Bear," the music woozily parallels the betrayal of the narrative.
Like fellow Southern classicist William Faulkner, Newsom provides a wordy portrait of drama and sadness in her music, but also subtly conflates the avant-garde with her backwards-looking baroque. Her harp-playing technique borrows from every school she knows in a way that mirrors her more post-modern counterparts. Like Faulkner, Newsom's more subtle shift of the norms is likely to prove as influential as the more staunch experimenters of her generation.
As a cohesive statement, Ys is a stronger statement because it is terribly untrendy: it is not a "freak folk" album, and it doesn't stand beside its companions as a definitive genre statement. Ys is in a class and a world all its own, with its own world to offer inside its depths. I look forward to many years spent listening to the ins and outs of this album, discerning the intent behind each syllable and every note.