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Tuesday, 22 May 2007

A Word to the Ys...

I'm guessing that Joanna Newsom may not be to everyone's taste. If you're in any doubt, there's a quick test that should establish whether it's worth your proceeding with this post any further. If you can't get past the opening lines of her latest album, Ys, then I think you may be better off scuttling across to see who GWAOTM has had inside her over the last week than reading my thoughts on Ms. Newsom's opus:

The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport of the pharoah.

(Can one of you close the door on the way out, these ivory towers can get *awfully* draughty you know....) But if you can get beyond the pre-Raphaelite daintiness of some of the conceits - the symbol-laden, Rossetti-style portrait of JN that prefaces the weighty, gilt edged lyric book (notice the absence of a -let there - wordy is not the word...) may prove too rich for some - this is an extraodinary piece of work.

For anyone with an interest in the canon of classic pop, the presence of former Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks alone should prove sufficient enticement to at least give it a go. If you do, his mercurial, sympatico orchestral framings of Newsom's voice and harp will delight. You're struck by how magnificent Parks and Wilson's doomed epic Smile could have been had the pair been able to bring to bear the same novelistic focus upon their material that Newsom does to hers here.

If the ambition and scale is that of a novelist, she has the short story writer's gift for description:

Peonies nod in the breeze,
and as they wetly bow
with hydrocephalitic listlessness,
ants mop up their brow.

*And* it rhymes!

You'd be forgiven the inference from that extract that this is a pretty difficult listen. And yet, and yet...these aren't songs (that term seems insufficient somehow, but songs they are...) to listen to so much as to *bathe* in. Although it's normal LP length, there are only 5 tracks. Closer 'Cosmia' weighs in at just over 7 minutes and is made to appear lightweight by it's lengthier brethren for not stretching out over double figures. Notoriously flighty and shuffle-fixated as I am in the morning, I listened to Ys twice through on the way in to work this morning - testament to the wonderful imaginative spaces that Newsome and Parks have spun. You will go back to them, just as you do to a hot bath on a cold day.

The stories and subjects seem oddly chosen, wilfully perverse at first - a family transfixed by a meteor show in 'Emily', a dancing bear and chimp suited accomplice in 'Monkey & Bear', the Gothic taxidermy and mechanical menagerie of 'Sawdust and Diamonds' and the astonishing centrepiece, 'Only Skin' which has a similar deep southern panoramic sweep to Gone With the Wind or To Kill Mockingbird. But like the best pre-Raphaelite poetry, the symbolism and metaphor functions best as a veil (however ornately brocaded) for trenchant social comment. So, when Newsom sings ""so, enough of this terror. We deserve to know the light", it doesn't take the keenest imagination to see beyond the world of stuffed birds and dancing bears that inhabit her songs to our own.

In a stunning passage in 'Only Skin', she pulls back from her tale of a child freeing a stunned bird to observe what could easily be contemporary America seen from the window of an SUV:

... the cities we passed were a flickering wasteland...
while down in the lowlands, the crops were all coming;
we have everything...Life is thundering blissful towards death...

I'm really pleased I overcame my initial resistance - the voice, at first seemed to me to let the venture down; that generic, well-read, youngish-woman-with-something-to-say-American voice that's beginning to become a bit too well-worn and safe through repetition. But then her larynx does that cheese-grater thing as she sings,

you came and lay a cold compress upon the mess I'm in; threw the window wide and cried 'amen amen amen'...

...and you realise that something very deep and ancient and beyond the trappings of pop stylisation is being tapped into here. In fact, she sounds like Billie Holiday - well, how Billie Holiday would sound if she was wearing a whimple...

So, if you like good narrative song writing, this is a must listen. If you're a fan of poems like 'Goblin Market', you may see a similarity in Newsom's rich, vivid parables and greet with wonder and surprise the fact that American culture can still produce artists who can write like like this;

Bear would sway on her hind legs;
the organ would grind dregs of song,
for the pleasure
of the children, who'd shriek,
throwing coins at her feet,
then recoiling in terror.

Not just any old Joanna.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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  1. Haven't heard this yet but now I will make the effort. Didn't she used to sing with Smog?

  2. Yes, but does she get her kit off in the video?

  3. Realdoc: JM is in fact Mrs Smog.

    I quite enjoy her music, once you get used to the voice and the very highly poetic language. I haven't got Ys yet though, still working my way round the first record.

  4. Give me Joanna over GWAOTM any day.