Joanna Newsom Review: ‘Ys’
One of the editors at my uni magazine recommended I listen to Joanna Newsom‘s latest album, Ys. Simon, the editor, told me what to expect: five epic, rambling, radically folky songs. Joanna plays the harp, mixing sparse, haunting plucks with breathless and spine-tingling runs. It’s hard to comprehend how anyone can do this at the same time as singing with such raw conviction. It’s very different to just about anything I’ve listened to lately, or maybe ever. Sometimes you get the feeling she’d be very much at home by the fire of some Olde English Lord’s castle – her lyrics are poetically illustrative and her wide-ranging voice literally drips with emotion (haha, got you, that was a metaphor!)
The second song, Monkey and Bear, starts off happy and carefree – Joanna cheerfully explains the wily animals’ escape from their indenture to a cruel farmer. Every time she moves from one free-flowing verse to the next, the mood changes oh-so-subtly. Slowly you start to suspect the monkey, to see the avarice and the lust for cruelty emerge. It’s painful, and at the end of it you’ll be amazed at the intense journey she packs into one song. The other ones follow suit, and there’s barely enough time for your ears to digest what’s thrown at them. The way the song weaves its way through different moods and keys is surprising and almost off-putting at first – when she changes the melody every couple of verses you’re left floating without a catchy hook to draw you back in.
This is part of the attraction and part of the problem I have with her music. I can’t relax and listen to it. It’s so dense and intricate that I have to concentrate for the music to mean anything to me. I can’t just sing along with a chorus because there never seems to be one. Her voice is unusual (in fact, all of her is), she pronounces words strangely and her voices jumps from low to high – sometimes actually cracking with feeling. Unless you listen hard or have looked up the lyrics you’ll miss what she’s saying – and the lyrics go so well with the music that you’d be crazy to be only getting part of “the experience”.
It’s beautiful music, but not in the relaxing way of something like Air. It’s inaccessible but rewarding in a way that I can’t remember ever experiencing. Lie in bed, close your eyes and turn it up loud. Let it fill your imagination with her clever rhymes and evocative poetry, and allow your heartbeat to undulate with its strange timing changes, and then make a judgement. Personally I think it’s worth the effort.