This Tuesday, Joanna Newsom released Ys, which is, in my opinion, the year’s best album. Plenty of others agree, and now Newsom has made it to Slate. (Slate generally pitches their tent right about the middle of the web’s cultural-vangard: they usually write articles several days after an book, record, or other piece of media has been covered on sites which devote themselves to that type of media, but are way ahead of major news sites like MSN or their ilk.)
In a glowing review, Jody Rosen writes:
The music on Ys is vivid and melodic, with catchy tunes, and some semblance of verse-chorus structures, lurking in all the rambling songs. But Newsom’s words are what really enrapture. The songs are set in rustic landscapes, and they teem with flora and fauna—with “yarrow, heather and hollyhock” that “awkwardly molt along the shore,” with “the muddy mouths of baboons and sows, and the grouse, and the horse, and the hen.” The overwrought literariness of Newsom’s lyrics is something else: She has dared to be the most pretentious songwriter in pop history, and she’s pulled it off. Has anyone stuffed songs with more adjectives? “Gibbering wave,” “hydrocephalitic listlessness,” “insatiable shadow,” “Awful atoll—/ O, incalculable indiscreetness and sorrow!” It seems miraculous that she’s managed to set this clotted language to such pleasurable music. Only “Monkey & Bear” failed to bewitch me, coming off as too preciously nursery rhymish. But even that song has sublime moments, with lovely Celtic folk-song-style singing from Newsom and some great turns of phrase. (“Then the outside-arms of the bear fell off/ As easy as if sloughed from boiled tomatoes.”) And when the language gets trimmer and starker, as in the opening verses of “Emily,” Newsom really casts a spell:
There is a rusty light on the pines tonight
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow
Down into the bones of the birches
And the spires of the churches
Jutting out from the shadows
The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow
And everything sloped like it was dragged from a rope
In the mouth of the south below
Modernity rarely intrudes on Newsom’s scenes, and the CD packaging, with its Renaissance-style cover portrait, veers close to the hokum of druids-and-dragons ’70s rockers. Newsom, though, is not trying to come on like a “faerie princess,” as some have written, and she’s certainly not singing madrigals. She’s not a revivalist, she’s an anachronist—like Tom Waits, she has discovered how to produce disorienting and uncanny effects by mashing up the archaic and the modern.
The Slate article is wonderful, for it also features clips of several of the songs, so you can get a feel for the album.