Review Summary: In a league of its own.
"Ys" is a mythical French city supposedly off the coast of Brittany (around France's northwestern area); according to legend, it eventually got swallowed up by the ocean, never to be seen again. It's odd to find such a fitting musical analogy to this "event," and yet Joanna Newsom's album of the same name is able to fit that same description. As the legendarily lost city was swallowed up, unsuspecting listeners get consumed in the album's incredible artistry and a folk voice matched by few singers in this generation. Look at the album cover; Newsom appears to be coming off as a bit innocent, with a a chirpy atmosphere to boot. The music, though, is a refreshingly different story. Ys is an illustrious blend of folk, baroque-period classical music, and a vibe almost befitting of a musical. The harpist/singer herself is obviously the star of the show, but is accompanied by a vast of array of wonderfully orchestrated string backdrops that assist in breathing even more life into her pieces. The result is an incredibly varied, highly emotive record, mere steps away from being an all-out masterpiece.
Indeed, the album may seem simplistic at first glance, but it soon becomes a thrilling tapestry of intricate instrumental work and fascinating narratives. Newsom's harp playing is able to weave itself in and out of the backing instruments, creating multiple moments of tension and release. "Cosmia," aptly titled, displays these very moments perfectly, particularly near the first instance of its climax; Newsom's free-flowing lyricism betrays her harp playing rhythmically (talk about multitasking!), ironically arousing interest as to what she and her string section will do next, what their next move will be. It's as if Newsom represents a film's moody nature; through song, she can illustrate conflicts and resolutions, narratives with twists and turns, and so forth. What sets her so far apart from her contemporaries, however, is her voice. Think of it as Bjork-meets-Appalachia-meets-jazz. Sound weird? Well, it's just as unique as you'd imagine it would be. The way Newsom's vocal style blends in almost perfectly with the music she's playing is remarkable; in a song like "Monkey and Bear," she's able to set a slightly melancholic tone that's both pretty and a touch unsettling. Songs like "Emily" and "Sawdust and Diamonds" are able to put her voice more in the spotlight, her flaws and characteristics only further adding to the mysterious natural qualities of her style. The most notable thing, however, is how she sings at the songs' climaxes; these moments capture her at her most unrestrained, vocal "cracks" and all. Even with the technical flaws of her voice, it's near-impossible not to deny the passion and raw energy her singing provides.
When mixing both the vocal work and the instrumentation, you have a match made in heaven, right? Well, unfortunately, there are a few missteps along the way. While the intricacies of these songs are great, sometimes they can be a bit too ambitious. There will be occasions where you'll want to take a break from the album due to how much is going on at once, and things get a little cluttered sometimes. The other thing is that a few dull patches in the middle cause some of the songs to overstay their welcome, mainly in the 17-minute "Only Skin." The song is still well-crafted, but there's just the feeling that some segments are somewhat unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.
What works on this album, however, works unbelievably well. Joanna Newsom was poised to show the world what she was really capable of, and it definitely shows. Ys may not be perfect, but it's so close that you likely won't bother with its flaws. It just shows how well a combination of disparate musical styles can work if a truly ambitious poet and musical artist sets out to meld them together.