Review Summary: So enough of this terror; we deserve to know light, and grow evermore lighter and lighter.
Regardless of how many years pass by, Ys
never becomes any less impressive with age. Joanna Newsom’s landmark second release still takes its listeners on an incredible ride across spellbinding landscapes and visits some of the most fascinating locales in modern folk. To anyone who has yet to try Newsom’s unique take on this kind of music, it may seem like a daunting task: five epics, all of which lie between 7 and 17 minutes, might immediately reek of pretentiousness to some. And it’s not like that’s entirely wrong, as each tune presents a complex tapestry of intricate harp playing and baroque-inspired orchestral sections; the lyrics often match the challenging music with oblique takes on death, relationships, and vague references to Newsom’s personal life. Yet, much like the mythical city that inspired the title of the album, the real magic happens when you simply get swallowed up by the highly atmospheric material found on Ys
Despite the epic song lengths and expansive arrangements, there’s actually comparatively little in the way of stylistic variation found on the record. Instead, it opts to take its best features and run with them as far as it can; most importantly, Newsom herself always remains at the forefront. Her harp playing is absolutely mindblowing, a fact that becomes even more impressive when you realize that she sings and plays at the same time in a live setting… often in a polyrhythmic manner. Because of the rambly and long-winded nature of the songs, Newsom's harp is often able to weave itself in and out of the backing instruments, creating multiple moments of tension and release. "Cosmia” displays this perfectly, particularly near the first instance of its climax; Newsom's free-flowing vocal lines and technical harp playing betray each other rhythmically, creating a perfect foil for the lovely strings to soar above such clashing energies. It really is an incredible moment, perhaps my favorite of her career.
It's as if Newsom’s compositions emulate the different tones and stages of a play; 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. Her singing is adorned with shades of Appalachian folk and even some touches of Bjork’s drawn-out vibrato-laden soprano vocals. It may be an acquired taste, but it fits the music of Ys
so damn well. The way her vocal style blends in almost perfectly with the music she's playing is remarkable; in "Monkey and Bear", she's able to set a slightly melancholic tone that's both pretty and a touch unsettling. Just listen to those strange otherworldly harmonies that introduce the number! Meanwhile, tracks like "Emily" and "Sawdust and Diamonds" are able to give her voice an even more prominent spotlight, her flaws and characteristics only further adding to the idiosyncratic 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. The highlight comes in “Only Skin”, whose climax combines her high-pitched harmonies with booming baritone male vocals to create an utterly beautiful juxtaposition.
Nearly 15 years later, Ys
still stands as Joanna Newsom’s magnum opus and one of the most important 21st-century folk records. The level of ambition and attention to detail that went into its creation is just as astounding now as when it was first released, as Newsom wasn’t afraid to create something truly expansive and mindbending with her craft. As great as her other records are, the songwriting mastery found in Ys
is truly lightning in a bottle; let’s be glad that the lightning lasted for almost an hour.