|RAW LIKE SASHIMI'S 100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME : #66 : Joanna Newsom : "Ys" (2006, FULL CD, HQ MP3) |
AN INSTANT MASTERPIECE - ONE OF THE GREATEST ALBUMS EVER RECORDED.
The biggest tragedy concerning Joanna Newsom's brave, marvelous new album, Ys, would be if everyone sat there listening to it like bored middle-school kids at an amateur Shakespeare production. Newsom's copious, knotty verse is far removed from that of the old poet, but its effect on the crowd is similar: Yes, it's hard to follow without the lyric sheet, it takes a few passes to catch the nuances, and all that drama can seem like something of a history lesson. Ys-- pronounced "ees" or if you prefer, "yeesh"-- is free of the jolts and heads-up hooks we expect from pop music. But while it's sure to suffer accusations of empty self-indulgence from some, many will find the contrary truer: Ys offers an endless wealth of substance, teeming with dense, well-mapped beauty.
Take one example: "Monkey and Bear". The song's title characters escape from the farm where they've lived safely all their lives, before one deviously cons the other into performing for frightened children in order to make a living. Listen to the greed the monkey conveys in degrading, insulting, and controlling the bear, and the tight grip he keeps on her dignity so as not to lose her-- which, of course, by the end, he does. Not bad for what starts out like a nursery rhyme.
Newsom has said that all five of the songs on this 55-minute album tell true stories. But to find them, you'll wade through lines and lines of fantastic allegories and arcane references. Early listeners have latched onto the folky-druid overtones as an excuse to dismiss the record. But nobody's going to reject a record this bold just because Newsom uses the word "thee" on occasion, or because she appears in promotional photos wearing a wolf pelt ass-up on her head. What we really can't handle is escapism. We instinctively balk at artists who hunker down in their own worlds-- especially when they force us to guess what they're thinking.
For someone who's been pegged as an "outsider artist," Newsom chose a presentation that's defiantly decorous. Van Dyke Parks' orchestration is polite, never intruding on her performance. And her voice, though less shrieky and childlike than on The Milk-Eyed Mender, is still a tough read. The way she creaks, wavers, and punches the lyrics is expressive but never in an obvious way; rather than just illuminating the lyrics, she's almost sticking another code on top of them.
But for all the exquisite melodies, arrangements, and production work, Newsom's lyrics make the performance. She crafts elaborate images but drives them with strong actions, and even the densest tangents keep pulling you along. An image like this one, from "Emily"--
"I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror"
-- is beautiful in its own right, but it's also full of movement. Every line of the record conveys some want or desire. This is easy to hear on "Only Skin", the most modern (and Kate Bush-like) cut, where she describes "being a woman"-- feeling fear, carrying candy like a mother, sharing her lover-- with language as vivid as she uses for a cloudy sky. Her eloquence starts to feel so natural that when she sings a line as blunt as, "Stay with me for a while/ That's an awfully real gun"-- it sticks out like a rend in fabric. And the centerpiece, "Sawdust and Diamonds", comes closest to a full release: While the strings take a smoke break, she performs an exhilarating rhapsody where striking verbs-- "cleft," "shook," "buckle," "crash"-- support sweeping allusions to death, love, and fear. Her heart's racing, and she doesn't stop it.
This isn't a great album because she owns a dog-eared encyclopedia, or because it stands above the cheap rewards or superficial freakiness we expected from her. It's great because Newsom confronts a mountain of conflicting feelings, and sifts through them for every nuance. It's intricate and crammed with information, but it's never bookish, and she never sits back in a spell and lets her heart flutter: She swoops into the sky and races across the ground, names every plant and every desire, and never feels less than real. The people who hear this record will split into two crowds: The ones who think it's silly and precious, and the ones who, once they hear it, won't be able to live without it.
RAW LIKE SASHIMI'S 100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME : Joanna Newsom : "Ys" (2006, FULL CD, HQ MP3)
RAW LIKE SASHIMI'S 100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME : Joanna Newsom : "Ys" (2006, FULL CD, HQ MP3) Alternate