Whenever I need to explain why I love Joanna Newsom’s Ys so dearly, I’m going to point them to this article from Arthur magazine. Erik Davis, the writer who interviewed Newsom, must have poured countless hours of preparation and revision into it. Its length is appropriate to the depths of Ys, and his portrait of Newsom is sensitive to her genius. This passage is my favorite:
But though Newsom is a powerfully moving singer-songwriter, she is in no ways a confessional one. Ys is no diary, no sloppy heart-to-heart. Its baroque and inventive architecture, like its layers of the orchestration, act as a distancing mechanism that transmutes the emotional turbulence that inspired the work in the first place. Newsom’s language, for one thing, is intensely worked. Evocative and sometimes piercingly tender, her lyrics also reflect an almost obsessive attention to old-school poetic stuff like consonance, alliteration, prosody, and internal rhymes. In “Sawdust & Diamonds,” when she sings “mute” near “mutiny,” the words not only echo phonetically but advance the song’s themes of expression and rebellion. Later on in the song, after invoking the puppetry of romance, she introduces the image of a dove:
And the little white dove,
Made with love, made with love;
Made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers
The easy rhyme of dove and love reflects the hackneyed ease of the cliché, which she then promptly takes apart. The word glove is a splice of glue and love, held together, as it were, with pliers and glue. This wordplay is not just surface but sense: it reflects the provisional and patched-together quality that exists beneath our idealizations of love, as well as what Newsom calls the “the Frankenstein phenomenon” that emerges when that love actually creates a living being.
This is not overworked — it’s right on. Ys is one of the few records I’ve heard that stands up to the sort of criticism we’re used to giving novels and long poetry. This, I would argue, is the primary source of its greatness.