Joanna Newsom – Ys

Joanna Newsom - Ys

Genre: Indie Folk, Chamber Folk

Recommended for: Fans of Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, Big Thief

Thoughts: What you make of Ys will primarily be what you make of its idiosyncrasies. Joanna Newsom has a voice that she herself has described as “untrainable,” the lyrics are dense and often archaic, and the average track spans more than ten minutes. The heavy medieval aesthetic and earnest ambition of this album also tend to alienate a lot of its listeners. But many of these same characteristics that make Ys difficult to approach only make me appreciate it more. It’s not that I appreciate the difficulty, necessarily, but mostly the uniqueness. There truly is nothing else like it.

The album opener, Emily, details at length Newsom’s relationship with her sister Emily, through three long verses and a chorus. In the first verse, she wistfully reminisces on their childhood in the West. Here, the feeling of separation between the scientifically-minded Emily and poetically-minded Joanna first develops—“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.” This is only made more dramatic in the chorus, a poem about meteors and meteorites where the information is wrong, even though Joanna Newsom had promised Emily that she’d “set them to verse so I’d always remember.” The second verse describes a time in which Emily had helped her through a miscarriage, and the third verse reflects Joanna Newsom’s desire to reconnect with her sister (“Come on home. The poppies are all grown knee-deep by now”).

Of course when listening to Emily for the first time I was first struck by the poetic elements, but I also dearly love Joanna Newsom’s singing and harp playing as well as the orchestra backing the song. The singing is still in the forefront, and almost none of it is purely instrumental. The song is melancholy and wistful and feels shorter than its twelve-minute runtime. It demands a listen, and is probably the best song on the album (if I was forced to choose). In a way it is mirrored by the closer, Cosmia, in that it feels like a lyrical awakening, a coming into the light- whereas Cosmia’s direct dialogue with death feels like natural closure. Cosmia is not hard or overt, but it finds consolation beyond loss, a major theme of the album as a whole.

Of course everything else has great merit too, though. Monkey and the Bear, which follows immediately, is a great allegory for societal oppression of women, with the monkey always holding the promise of freedom and happiness just ahead of the bear, being very controlling and obsessive. The song ends like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening with the bear swimming far out to sea—though she does not drown, but instead turns into a constellation (Ursa Major). The following Sawdust and Diamonds is probably the song that I’ve explored the least, but it has a number of intense moments in its highly symbolic tale of a child’s death. The intricate lyrics explore a loss of control (“And then the system of strings tugs on the tip of my wings (cut from cardboard and old magazines) / Makes me warble and rise, like a sparrow”). These songs are slightly shorter, but set up the seventeen-minute (!) Only Skin in a way that makes it feel like the climax of the album. A complex story of a strained relationship between Newsom and a former soldier, there really is too much to explain everything. Yet especially strong segments include a narrative about a brown bird that hit Newsom’s window, who recovers when she is released (“Where she’d lain, as still as a stone, in my palm, for a lifetime or two / Then saw the treetops, cocked her head, and up and flew”), and one about her PTSD-ridden partner who contemplates suicide but is brought back through their love. The guest vocals from Smog’s Bill Callahan on the latter half of the song greatly add to the build up near the end. Here, too, Van Dyke Parks’ Baroque-inspired arrangements really start to shine, with numerous great and well-placed flourishes. But none of this diminishes from what is really at forefront—Joanna Newsom’s incredible storytelling and songwriting.

Favorite Songs: Emily, Only Skin, Cosmia

Least Favorite Song: Sawdust and Diamonds

Rating: 10/10