Monday, November 13, 2006

Joanna Newsom

Surely by now most people with any sort of ear to the air have heard about, listened to, or at least seen the cover of, Joanna Newsom's new album: Ys. I wrote about it several days ago with watering mouth, or more like dripping fangs. I have been eager to bite into this album for months now. Newsom's first album, The Milk Eyed Mender, has very special meaning to me.

I dilly dallyed her first album for a while. I had heard about it, knew it had topped (hundreds of) lists, and knew that it was one of the most divisive albums that I had heard of since Blueberry Boat. Typically, divisive albums attract me like bathtubs do spiders, but this time I would look at the woven and burlapish textured cover and continue to say "I'll get to it. I'll get to it." I wouldn't get to it until the summer of 2005, a time of various transitions and discoveries.

I have three specific memories trailing certain songs on the album like translucent thought clouds, attached by little poofy and diminishing dots. I remember walking into Riverby used bookstore in Fredericksburg VA, my collegetown, and visiting a crush. She played "Peach, Plum, Pear" on the old record player and I was stricken with horror and amazement. What audacity to use a harpsichord with that voice! Possibly the most potentially annoying instrument ever invented besides the guitar, and she made me believe her.

The second memory trails along behind me, a little stormier, a little more intentionally distanced. I stole Kitsch's copy of the album and listened to it non-stop on the way up to visit an old friend in New York City. The night before, through a huge fight, I had realized that I was unadulteratedly still in love with my ex-girlfriend. "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" drifts over the Verazzano bridge, hazening, like the thundercloud there that turned my vision grey and mirrored the thoughts of the past five driven hours.

Three weeks later I found myself driving again, this time in a more Southy direction toward Kitty Hawk and toward family. I had just met a beautiful, artistic, brilliant, earthy-toned seventeen year old. I was five months into twenty-one and one month away from my Senior year of College. I had some things to think about. "En Gallop" is North Carolina's beach at night, extending and extending into brambles and sandy houses, wild horses. I alternated that with Nick Drake's Pink Moon for the entire trip.

Newsom's detractors are guerrilla warfarer's. I am consistently surprised by those who hate her and those who love her. My friends Sarah and Taylor, who turned down the safer, more accessible Shins, once clamored through my CD case in search of "The Milk Eyed Mender" on the way to a Page France show in Baltimore. It repeated several times as cigarette explosions trailed my Hyundai Elantra. And my adventurous friend, Jackie, with a penchant for women singers, will break into shrill and obnoxious parody at any mention of Newsom's wiles. and that brings me to Ys.

Ys is theatric. Ys is bloated. Ys is exhausting. Ys is paralyzing.

Ys is going to be the most divisive album this year, I guarantee it. It is by far the most anticipated, most buzzing(with the leak and all), has the best cast (Van Dyke Parks did the strings, Jim O'Rourke did the mixing, Steve Albini engineered, Nick Webb at Abbey Road Mastered, Bill Callahan of smog sings on it) and has, far and away, the worst album art. But beneath this scrum of orchestra, knobs and sliders, and bass-voiced boyfriends there is Newsom.

Her debut, a wide-eyed bare-footed trek through cold mountain springs and log cabins, was simple. Not base, but simple. It was Newsom when Newsom knew Newsom. and we knew Newsom too. She sat us down on a rock, made us look up, and plucked out cassiopeia with her forefinger. She put our feet in snowycold water with Swansea. She killed her dinner with karate. Simple.

Ys is complex. When Newsom invited all of us to her cabin she didn't anticipate the numbpiercing fear that humans have when we are around each other. This album is, both intentionally and unintenionally, the most comprehensive exploration of social anxiety I have ever heard. Anxiety about the necessity of work over play in Monkey and Bear. Anxiety about distance and proximity in Cosmia. Anxiety about Love in all of them. Every song on this album hurts to listen to because it hits so close to home. It is the deforestation of her whimsy.

And yet, it still manages to not be cynical, not by any means, she has just cupped her hands around her quirkiness and held it a bit closer to her chest to protect it from rushing cars and falling trees. In place of her forest is Van Dyke Park's orchestration, a mere hologram of her former home.

Parks jams in every instrument he can from the croaktwang of Jew's Harps to the pastoral hills of strings to the lowbuzzing oboe. A majority of the time these instruments are gorgeous and a majority of the time these instruments are unnecessary. O'Rourke pushes Park's orchestration above, or at least to the same level as, Newsom's harp. He never loses sight of the fact that Ys belongs to her voice and her words, but there are countless moments where I want to hear the interweaving of Newsom's knotfingers and am accosted by a cello zipping back and forth, over my head, from ear to ear.

However, and this is key, the overwrought, bloated, smoggy (no pun intended) cellulite that drips from this album accidentally makes it better. Newsom's anxieties and fears are magnified by her seeming lack of control over the thick symphonics and pushed syrup of airs over Ys. I don't mean to say that the orchestrations are bad, there are moments of perfection where her harp and the strings decide to run parallel to each other, each complimenting the other like a dirt road next to a stream. Sometimes, though, the orchestrations hijack the song and frustrate the lyrics and the harp into the background. but the intrepid Newsom plucks on and consistently squeezes us through these quarter sized holes in the music to the other side where a moment of shivering perfection waits.

I work at a data-entry job. I sit at a desk all day long and take parts of the internet and put it on other parts of the internet. Yet listening to "Ys" at my desk evokes more emotion in me than listening to "The Milk Eyed Mender." Many people have no patience for emotion like this, they listen to Autechre probably, where synapses firing mean more than the pumping of blood. Thats fine, I'll enjoy that some other time. Many people have no patience for her voice, there is no accounting for taste. But I've always been more intrigued by the people who compose the A minus than the people who compose the A plus. And this album might be flawed in countless ways, but so are people, and so is Joanna Newsom.

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