Lush string arrangements, lengthy track runtimes, and an emphasis on instrumentation, virtuosity, & storytelling define harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom’s landmark operatic folk album Ys. Ys is an ambitious leap forward from her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), a humble collection of harp-accompanied folk songs. Yet even on Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom was a polarizing figure. Her voice, which Newsom professes to be “untrainable,” has been described as anywhere from beautifully expressive, to reminiscent of the timbres of a dying cat. Similarly, there are some who would accuse her grandiloquent themes and lyrics of pretension and self-indulgence. These are matters of personal taste, but a case could be made for Ys to be both an outstanding example of songwriting that has freed itself of popular rock conventions, and one of the greatest albums of all time.
Ys consists of five folk opera arrangements, accompanied by her harp and a backing orchestration composed by Van Dyke Parks. The lyrics of each track are essentially stand-alone poems, and an accompanying lyrics sheet is recommended to appreciate Newsom’s songwriting. For most of the album, Newsom sings without pause, but the repeated iterations of melody never feel stale as they are propelled forward by the overarching storyline.
Opener “Emily” is a touching narrative and tribute to her sister Emily, reminiscing of a night that they spent together as children:
“And, Emily – I saw you last night by the river
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”
In “Emily,” she illustrates the differences between her and her sister. Emily is the inquisitive one, pondering the physics and trajectories of the skipping stones, while Newsom is focused on the imagery and poetic qualities of the scene. Emily would go on to become a traveling astrophysicist, while Newsom would go on to perform and write music. Yet, the two sisters could still share this memory together – Emily explains to Newsom the differences between meteorites, meteors, & meteroids while Newsom immortalizes those teachings in a memorable chorus:
“Anyhow – I sat by your side, by the water
You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger
Though all I knew of the rote universe were those pleiades loosed in december
I promised you I’d set them to verse so I’d always remember
That the meteorite is a source of the light
And the meteor’s just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.”
“Monkey & Bear” follows these astronomical themes with an allegorical tale of the origins of Ursa Major. The titular anthropomorphized characters, Monkey and Bear, escape from their farm only for Monkey to exploit Bear for financial gain. As a recurring motif, monkey continually taunts Bear with promises of a fictional land of plenty, which Newsom brings to life in picturesque fashion, where Bear could finally receive her just reward.
“But for now, just dance, darling
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
Darling, there’s a place for us;
Can we go, before I turn to dust?
Darling there’s a place for us
“Darling. C’mon will you dance
The hills are groaning with excess
Like a table ceaselessly being set
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
And we’ll get there yet.”
As the story progresses, Bear finds her situation unbearable and opts to drown herself in the sea, transcending into the familiar constellation in the night sky. Throughout all of this, Newsom’s lyrics and interplay between string and voice capture the devious personality of Monkey, and the despair that eventually drives Bear to her limit. In a similar poetic manner, tracks “Sawdust & Diamonds,” “Only Skin,” and “Cosmia” explore deeply personal themes of sexuality, fertility, love, and grief. Newsom’s vocal performance is a highlight here, stretching from calm and measured, to woefully distraught, to almost sounding as though she were in the throes of orgasm.
Ys is a challenging record with endless but rewarding opportunities for exploration. Every word is painstakingly chosen by Newsom and the songs become clearer with each repeated listen. Lyrics aside, the delicate interplay between Newsom’s eccentric vocal style, masterful harp playing, and ornate string instrumentation is a joy to listen to.
Joanna Newsom – Emily