Let me preface this music review by saying that I have been called a hipster before. I don’t know that this appellation is entirely correct, given that I’m 30, and probably closer to hip replacement than actual hipster. That said, I listen to a lot of indie music and the stuff I enjoy has occasionally been referred to using words like “esoteric,” “crap,” and “she sounds like a cat.”
I’m certain that all of these words have been used to describe Joanna Newsom. I remember the first song of hers I ever heard was “Soft as Chalk” from her third (and latest) album “Have One on Me,” and I reacted with a resounding, “Huh.” Then I didn’t listen to her for months.
Newsom is one of those artists who is very easy to dismiss if you don’t immerse yourself in the world she creates with her music, at least for a little bit. Her voice can squeak like a porch swing that needs oiling, and it’s sometimes painful to watch her throat and face contort to grasp at certain notes. But in the same way that you never actually get around to oiling the swing, and later find that the squeak has become a welcome part of sitting there of an evening, her voice grows on you, and makes sense within the quirky classical yet Appalachian stylings of her music.
While I enjoy a lot of the songs off of her first and third albums, “Milk-Eyed Mender” and “Have One on Me,” I find the album that really drew me in was her second one. It was listening to this album that made me realize how powerful of a wordsmith she is. The folkloric tone is set by the title, “Ys,” which refers to a mythical city in Brittany that was swallowed by the ocean. It contains only five songs, with the shortest one being over seven minutes, and the rest ten minutes or longer, but none of them feels too long. Newsom is a consummate storyteller, and while you’re listening to the songs, you feel as though you’re hearing something important, something that you shouldn’t forget, like a tale that has been passed down generations by oral tradition. This is particularly true in the songs “Emily,” “Sawdust and Diamonds,” and, most of all, “Only Skin,” which is probably the album’s masterpiece.
Despite how epic the songs seem in their scope, the stories they tell remain accessible. “Emily,” which was named for Newsom’s sister, contains scenes familiar to siblings or any person who has a long history with another. It’s not saccharine; the tone remains bittersweet, and you get the sense of clinging to a connection created through having a shared history in the face of the hardships and inexorable endings that are present in life (“we could stand for a century/ staring, with our heads cocked… in bodies that don’t keep, dumbstruck with the sweetness of being”).
“Only Skin,” which is the longest song on the album at nearly 17 minutes, is almost perfect. The orchestration, the pacing and climax, and again, the lyrics, are all spot on. It’s a lush saga against what feels like a very historical, mythical landscape, chronicling the experience of a woman and her devotion to a frowned upon and doomed relationship This summation doesn’t even begin to do it justice, and if there’s one song by Newsom that you should take note of, it’s this one.
The only danger in writing so well is that she sets nearly impossibly high standards for herself, so that any inconsistency in lyric quality becomes a glaring fault. However, probably the worst that can be said about her lyrics is that they can at times verge on seeming a little self indulgent (“awful atoll – o incalculable, indiscreetness, and sorrow!/ bawl bellow/ Sibyl sea cow all done up in a bow,” from “Only Skin”). These times are pretty few and far between, and still one knows that she hasn’t just sat down and tossed off some words to fill the space.
Musically, all three albums are strong, with her providing harp, pedal harp and keyboard/piano on all three, with increasingly more instrumentation from collaborators on each album. While the music is always good, for me one of the biggest strengths is that it serves as an unobtrusive yet evocative backdrop for the stories she tells. It may be odd to say in a music review that the actual music takes second place to what is really astounding, but that’s not exactly what I mean. The music and lyrics exist in a marriage between equals, with harp and piano strains teasing out emotions that you could hardly put words to. Not to worry though, because she does it for you.