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Joanna Newsom, a singer-songwriter who is often photographed in peasant garb, would seem to be every bit the folk artist. Her singsongy debut, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, is, as she says, rooted in Appalachian ditties and “old blues,” her favorite flavors of American music. Mender’s dozen brief originals are melodically simple yet lyrically rich. And, throughout that much lauded album, the San Francisco chanteuse eschews both complex arrangements and a backing band, opting instead to accompany her own Little Orphan Annie vocalizing with piano, harpsichord, or, more frequently, a full-sized harp that she plucks like a guitar.
But first appearances—even such an idiosyncratic one—can be deceiving. Now, with the release of Newsom’s second full-length, Ys (pronounced “ees”), it’s clear that this 24-year-old is a folk artist like Scott Walker is a teen idol, Tom Waits is a bluesman, or Fiona Apple is, like, you know, Britney. That is to say, to call Newsom a folk artist, or even a “freak folk” one—is to miss the point: Ys is Joanna Newsom music, her coming out as a capital-E eccentric. She hasn’t updated her outfits or given up singing and playing harp. It’s just that Newsom’s idea of American music is much more inclusive than she initially let on.
For evidence, look no further than Ys’ producer, arranger, and accordion player, Van Dyke Parks. A capital-E eccentric himself, Parks has worn many hats: Broadway actor, L.A. session musician, and author of three revised Br’er Rabbit books. But the sexagenarian is perhaps best known as the guy who collaborated with another famous oddball, Brian Wilson, on the Beach Boys’ “lost” rock opera, the recently resuscitated Smile. Parks’ own solo recordings, such as Vietnam-era cult items Song Cycle and Discover America, are thick with—you guessed it—Americana. And he continues that thread on Ys, underscoring Newsom with lush, Aaron Copland–style orchestration.
Parks adds strings to all but one of Ys’ five lengthy cuts. Yet, given that the unembellished “Sawdust & Diamonds” is about as extended as anything else on the record, Parks’ presence alone cannot explain Newsom’s new approach. For that, it might be helpful to consider the singer-songwriter’s less-than-autodidactic past. She is, as she often notes in interviews, the child of musical parents, one of whom almost became a concert pianist. Newsom grew up with the music of neighbor Terry Riley, a composer who, along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, pioneered late-20th-century minimalism. Plus, she attended Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where Reich and Dave Brubeck got master’s degrees and she studied composition and creative writing.
No one will mistake Ys for minimalism, much less regular old classical music. Even so, there are echoes of Riley and Reich in the way that Newsom stretches and pulls at her songs of the South. On the excellent Mender, she has a syllable for almost every beat, and a chorus—or at least a B part—for every couple of verses. Now, Newsom’s songs play out in a less songlike fashion. The 12-minute opener “Emily,” which features vocal harmonies from her titular sister, rambles as if it were improvised on the spot. Newsom grasps awkwardly to words (sparrow becomes “spare-air-row”), and undersells the refrain (“The meteorite is the source of the light”), creating a dronelike effect that all but nullifies Parks’ frequent string swells.
It’s possible, too, that Ys’ oddly structured songs have less to do with Newsom’s classical background than with her training as a writer. Her love for rhyme scheme and what she calls “the way that words fit together” is apparent from the first stanza of Mender’s opening track, “Bridges and Balloons.” “We sailed away on a winter’s day,” she sings, “With fate as malleable as clay/But ships are fallible, I say/And the nautical, like all things, fades.” In the following stanza, she then goes on to rhyme—try saying this five times fast—“caravel,” “little wicker beetle shell,” and Narnia locale “Cair Paravel.” Still, the cleverness of her craft never outshines the musicality of what comes tripping across her tongue. Or, more simply, Mender’s lyrics work as riff first, storytelling second.
Ys is, at times, just as full of rhymes. But its lyrics have almost the opposite effect. For example, the first stanza of penultimate track “Only Skin” suggests a short story or reminiscence in medias res. “And there was a booming above you,” she begins. “That night black airplanes flew over the sea/And they were lowing and shifting like/Beached whales/Shelled snails/As you strained and you squinted to see/The retreat of their hairless and blind cavalry.” The song, which features almost 17 minutes of singing, never arrives at an honest-to-goodness chorus. And, like movie music, its harp-and-orchestra motifs evoke mood and add commentary rather than dictate the pulse of the narrative.
Even “Monkey & Bear,” with its hook straight outta Bernstein and Sondheim, is defined by storytelling. Throughout the zoological yarn, Newsom uses rhyme when it advances the narrative. When it doesn’t, she opts for straight-ahead prose, which, given her proclivity toward assonance, reveals an impatience with songform. “‘Did you hear that, Bear?’ said Monkey,” she sings. “‘We’ll get out of here/Fair and square/They’ve left the gate open wide!’” Not only that, Newsom begins stanzas with conjunction after conjunction, a run-on technique that gives the tune a sense of rhythmless forward motion. One can almost imagine her holding court by a campfire, saying, with every gulp of air, “And then…”
If all of this sounds a bit beyond the pale—or at least beyond what the average person would find entertaining—it is also, at times, conventionally charming. Some of its magic is subtle, such as Parks’ elegiac accordion chording on “Only Skin.” Some of it less so, such as Newsom’s most romantic refrain, “And I will miss your precious heart,” which she sings on album-closer “Cosmia.” Few of Ys’ hooks, however, will sink in on first or second listen, an aspect that will no doubt turn off some of Mender’s most devoted fans. That’s to be expected. After all, the woman who made it isn’t the artist we thought she was. Ironically, in the process of getting in touch with her roots, Newsom ventured further away from roots music. The question is: Who will be brave enough to follow her? CP