Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Ys, by Joanna Newsom
1 Emily 12:08
2 Monkey & Bear 9:28
3 Sawdust & Diamonds 9:55
4 Only Skin 16:53
5 Cosmia 7:17
My Review of Ys
Whilst Newsom's 2004 debut, The Milk-eyed Mender, was a quirky but loveable debut, it scarely hinted at the quantum leap that would take us to Ys, and Newsom to packed concert halls around the world just two years later.
Dating from the age of vinyl records, I have a particular respect not just for the music but for its packaging too. Much as I love my internet-buying, MP3-listening lifestyle, it doesn’t replace the quiet thrill a music loving teenager got from the tactile record sleeves of his newest aquisitions, read and enjoyed on the bus or train home from the shops, like the aperitif before the main course of actually putting the vinyl on the turntable. Hence, the first thing to impress me about Ys is the embossed slip case (we oldies are suckers for a nice bit of embossing!) , with its Holbein-esque portrait of Newsom. Very fetching. Next comes the gilt-edged 30 page booklet, most of which are printed with beautifully laid out lyrics. What's not to like so far? I put on the CD and play it in the background while I mess around on the computer (i.e. work). Joanna caws and crows and coos, and talks and sings and squeaks and squeals, and sometimes just seems to spit out the words, and it seemed on first listen that she barely stops for breath the whole 55 minutes running time. Despite a few nails-on-blackboard moments I like what I hear.
Several plays later and some of the words are stuck in me like barbs, like on the opening track 'Emily', a song to her sister.
The refrain is like a song within a song. “I promised you I’d set them to verse, so I’d always remember,” declares Joanna, and then delivers on that promise.
The meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee
And the meteorite's just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee
It's been noted elsewhere that the above statement isn't technically correct. However, given that sister Emily is an astrophysicist and sings backing vocals on the track we can safely assume this is a private joke. In fact all of the lyrics are private, says Joanna in an interview. The listener is left to savour the pure poetry of her familial ode of love and commitment. To her well-travelled sister Newsom later sings:
Emily, they’ll follow your lead by the letter.
And I make this claim, and I’m not ashamed to say I know you better.
What they’ve seen is just a beam of your sun that banishes winter.
Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor.
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined, and hold us close forever.
'Monkey and Bear' tells the story of two circus escapees, and their conversations, it's safe to say this is an aesop-like fable... of our inability to escape from the expectations of others? Like much of Newsom’s lyrics it’s an dense and inscrutable as Eliot’s Wasteland. I’d live to read somebody’s analysis of the bear’s second escape.
The first two tracks are considerably enlivened by the creative orchestrations of Van Dyke Parks, but he and the orchestra take a rest for the central track, Sawdust and Diamonds and it's a testament to Newsom's prowess as a vocalist and harpist that the listener may take a while to note the orchestra’s absence. It’s a good artistic move, showcasing Newsom’s harp playing, while giving the orchestrations a breather, but certainly not the listener as the pace barely lets up for 11 minutes, Newsom spitting out such as:
I wasn’t born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight
No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright.
In the days of vinyl the 17 minutes of ‘Only Skin’ could have occupied a full side, and in many respects it would benefit from such a physical separation. The range of melodies, the numerous changes of pace, the variety of backing instruments, and the scope of lyrics is engrossing and handsomely repays a listener’s (and reader’s!) attention. The climactic tune, a duet with boyfriend Bill Callaghan, is thrilling.
The last song Cosmia is (from what I understand) an emotional ode to a passed-away friend. At 7 minutes it’s the shortest and most direct and moving of the songs, and is my favourite. The harp motif and the rapturous refrain that follows it, would do justice to any great classical composer.
And all those lonely nights
down by the river
You brought me bread and water, water in
But though I tried so hard, My little darlin
I couldn’t keep the night from coming in.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast. Ys is a landmark recording in music, one which I’m sure will stand the test of time for generations. This quirky twenty-four year old musician must now be considered a fully-formed talent, but hopefully without the knock-knees!
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