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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

More harp, please: Joanna Newsomƒ?TMs second album exceeds and defies expectations

By Jeffrey Gustafson

Though she hasn’t been on the indie radar for long, the mention of Joanna Newsom inspires divine visions in even the most disaffected hipster.
And for good reason.
Her 2004 LP The Milk-Eyed Mender combined lovely solo instrumentation with enough literate quirkiness to power several Wes Anderson films. Her bizarre Lisa Simpson-esque voice somehow made poetry about catenaries, dirigibles, and committing acts of violence against her dinner seem organic and personal, a skill few lyricists can boast. And, of course, there was the harp.
With all these eccentricities built up, the question of whether she had staying power or if it was all just a wonderful gimmick became perhaps the most anticipated in all indiedom.

Superficially, things looked grim. Reports circulated that the new album was to feature a full orchestra, have only five songs (the shortest clocking in at over seven minutes), and be titled Ys, the name of some mythical Breton city in which epic things probably occurred. In other words, the dreaded concept album had claimed another innocent victim. This was the sort of high-minded wankery that all but killed 1970s progressive rock; had not humanity learned since then?
As it is, the ambitious parameters of Ys actually expand on Newsom’s best traits, but not in ways fans might expect. Besides all the technical additions, there is a huge emotional departure from her earlier work. Whereas Mender’s oddball sentimentality left plenty of room for fun and games, Ys has scarcely a frivolous moment. It’s a journey into a world of longing, loss, and danger that Mender barely implied.

The musicianship is impeccable, as expected. Van Dyke Parks, a composer noted for his collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, provides a perfect equilibrium of whimsy and dread that never takes the show away from Newsom. Her voice is still a bit squeaky, but also more assertive and resonant. Ys also provides the first irrefutable proof that she can wail on her harp; the orchestra-less “Sawdust and Diamonds” has the harp equivalent of Van Halen guitar tapping solo.
For all its musical treats, the heart of Ys is its rich lyricism. It may seem overstuffed with arcane references and flighty imagery, but a close listen reveals real emotion. For example, on the opener “Emily” she sings, “Though all I knew of the rote universe were those pleiades loosed in December / I promised you I’d set them to verse so I’d always remember.”
The way she expresses a childish loyalty in the face of the unknown is destroyed in “Monkey and Bear,” an intricately narrated allegory in which a sly monkey convinces a trusting bear that he loves her, only to turn her into a circus act for money. On “Cosmia” she sounds like an overprotective mother realizing the futility of her devotion: “But though I tried so hard my little darling / I couldn’t keep the night from coming in.” Even simple lines like these convey more emotion than most bands do in the course of a song. If we bear in mind that there are 50 lines like this in every song, the mathematics are truly daunting.

“Sawdust and Diamonds” is perhaps the musical and emotional crux of the album. It begins and ends with the same quatrain: “From the top of the flight / Of the wide, white stairs / For the rest of my life / Do you wait for me there?” That’s a pretty heavy question, but it’s a delight hearing Newsom try to answer it. When the introduction is over, the harp kicks into overdrive (how often can you say that about a song?) and the rest of the song alternates between anxious verses, triumphant choruses, and a conciliatory interlude.
I realize I’m sounding like more and more of an asshole as I attempt to analyze poetry that is way beyond my ability to analyze, but there’s at least a pattern in this one. The “little white dove, made with love” she refers to near the beginning is later noted to be “stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds.” What that means, I don’t know. Newsom claims that all of the songs in some way tell true stories, but peeling back the obscurities is not necessary to appreciate their poignancy.

Listening to this album will send pangs of guilt to anyone who thought the term “sophomore slump” would be even remotely applicable. The extraordinary creative force of Ys makes me hope that there are many, many more obscure Breton cities that haven’t had albums made about them yet.

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    Charles ManningSep 5, 2019 at 8:39 pm

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