Review Summary: The system of strings tugs on the tip of my wings.
I guess the point is to find Joanna Newsom eloquent, a blooming flower among the weeds of her “psych” folk, but that’s like pointing at the sky and calling it blue. The true appeal to Newsom, underneath the tapestries of her arrangements, saddled between her melodies and poetic charm, are her nimble stumbles. As a textbook example of majestic storytelling, Newsom’s forward thinking, coupled with garden grown lyricism, make her voice’s cracks and faults shine as an essential character; within the orchestration, they serve to bring the album to life in vivid detail, an empowering taste of grand folklore. And that’s exactly what Ys
is, Newsom’s finest intertwining of her fine-picked harp and doggy-eared narration, the stories so well-worn and comfortable that we might as well be hearing it again, a fact that not only strengthens Ys
but makes it.
Working with Van Dyke Parks, who arranged and conducted the orchestration only after her own recording, Newsom wastes no time in creating her tale, her refined vocals leading in the tapered harp plucking to “Emily.” The track, slowly sprinkled with violins before Parks’ string section grows prominently into the first quarter, perfectly illustrates most of the intricacies to Ys
, from Newsom’s shifting tone and speed to the subtle layering of vocals to accentuate key lyrics (“I've seen your bravery, and I will follow you there”). With deliberate pacing that should weed out those willing to stick out Ys
’ length, “Emily,” like many other tracks, is composed of parts, so seamlessly strewn together that, if not for those paying attention to the tonal shift, it’s damn near impossible to catch until well into a new melody. This is most apparent in the beautiful implosion of “Cosmia,” it’s second act melody shift into violins and rolling crescendos a slow deconstruction of the song’s sudden tempered tempo and Newsom’s squeals of passion. As with any brilliant album, moments of ingenuity are interjected into the mix, and Ys
is consistently surprising because of them. The upbeat attitude to “Monkey & Bear,” its meticulously crafted tune courtesy of Parks’ subtle use of spattered violins complementing Newsom’s harp without overpowering it, is seemingly lifted from the pages of a fairy tale. That Ys
’ most colorful song is also the track with the richest and widest set of characters doesn’t seem to be a coincidence, the twinkling of harps as a stable-boy cries that quickly become the muted horns as an animal makes a means to escape his cage becoming subtle but vital changes to accentuate the action taking place.
Attention to detail is not wasted on either aspect of Ys
, where Newsom, after noting the floundering, grass-sick horse, states, “And had the overfed dead but listened to that high-fence, horse-sense wisdom,” allowing us to fill in the rest. By the final stretch of “Monkey & Bear,” the song has started into a quick trot of woodwind instruments, up to the tempo of a jackrabbit, with Newsom’s jumbled performance implying that the story of a bear caught in its insatiable shadow might not be about a bear at all. That the dense “Monkey & Bear” drops out to embrace the lonely harp of “Sawdust & Diamonds” (at the expense of Parks’ absence) only magnifies the importance of the parallels between Newsom’s creations, both musically and lyrically. Her vocals shine brilliantly here, her wavering cracks and emotional yelps selling each lonely, personal note. With the harp at the service of the vocals, minimalist and appropriately sedated, what’s left is the nuance of the imagery, the ten-minute “Sawdust & Diamonds” bustling with truthful and clever optimism: “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"” More than many modern singer-songwriters, Newsom realizes life is about the oddity found in reality, pulling into it her own personal narrative. This narrative might never fully congeal as a complete idea or altogether make sense, but that it remains interesting is a testament to Newsom’s ability as that rare singer-songwriter, weaving “Only Skin” to a daunting 16 minutes with ease, all the way up to its final male vocal-centered moments.
Even seen as inaccessible, Ys
isn’t fit as a grower. It sits idly on the shelf like a yellow tinged book, worn from years of idly leafing through the pages, not because you like the book but because of a perverse curiosity to what it should be. Until that one day when the first page crackles and the last page feels too soon, and whether you like it when you’ve finished doesn’t seem to be the point when the important fact is that it kept you coming back in the first place. When Newsom sings, “And they will recognize all the lines of your face in the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter,” the same could easily be said about Ys
: In years to come, we’ll be sure to see Newsom’s positive and now almost essential influence.