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Joanna Newsom – Ys (Revisited Review)

5/5: Newsom is worthy of a nobel prize. Holding up 14 years later

Ys (2006) is the sophomore album from Joanna Newsom. Moving from the short, peppy songs of ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ to a lengthy five unconventional compositions, this is a real stepping stone for her career making it the one I have chosen to discuss. The eyebrow raising collaboration between Steve Albini and Van Dyke Park is enough to give this thing a listen. The structure of the songs more akin to classical music than anything else, transporting the listener into an abyss of orchestral arrangements and gorgeous harp playing. 

Newsom’s lyrics not out of place in the catalogues of any nobel prize winner. Being something that could be analysed to death bringing different meanings each time. With structures going as deep as the four elements. Count how many times water is mentioned on this record and tell me it isn’t intentional. In the way T.S Eliot will describe water as life and dryness as death. The amount of detail is next level, making Newsom a huge stand out artist of this century. Kudos to Drag City for including such brilliant record packaging with a lyric booklet inside of the gatefold. Celebrating Newsom’s recent 38th birthday I have revisited arguably her most appreciated work in as brief fashion as possible. 

The above factors are demonstrated from the get go with opening cut ‘Emily’. An ode towards Newsom’s Astrophysicist sister. It touches on the reminiscence of childhood, memories and family relations. The track is filled with beautiful rural Californian imagery. Alongside narrative where a young Emily teaches Joanna about the cosmos that she can’t quite grasp. Newsom gets the meanings of different rocks wrong after promising ‘to put them to verse’. A touching reminder that time has passed and we can only retain certain amounts of memory, and likewise only have a certain amount of time. The nursery rhyme esque poem is filled with character as it rolls of Newsom’s tongue naturally. 

‘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 and offering to thee.’

Newsom describes her unplanned pregnancy and abortion. Here she details her sister getting her out of a heavy rot that followed, in which she compares everyone else’s reactions to animals with ‘muddy mouths’. There are some incredible metaphorical descriptions of a deserted town where ‘the mail is late’ to describe this mindset.  

In the first of many moments on the album it is easy to get lost in the multi layered wordplay Newsom serves. She states she needs a ‘midwife to help me find my way back in’. Something that leaves the listener questioning if she needs to be taken back to the womb to relive her life (therefore stopping her abortion), or if she is asking for the advice of her sister. Here Emily could be compared to Socrates, who was known as ‘The midwife of ideas’. He had an obsession with astrology and consoled in others just like Emily.

Looking back upon the present day she begs Emily to come home from travelling in her profession. She states she will sit and relive them days until a religious judgement day, in which she references the book of exodus.

Til we don’t be told, take this and eat this’

The lyrics are easy to miss on when her voice and instrumentation is so hypnotic in itself. On many moments (on the album) sections of melody will fly by briefly before being ditched. It is unbelievable when many other artists would sell their soul for such a heavenly melody.

On the 17 minute centrepiece, ‘Only Skin’ this is especially prominent. Parks really shines on this number showing skills that arguably outdo his impeccable work on The Beach Boys ‘Smile’. The track weaves in and out of section after section before making its way back to it’s original idea. Its structure is awe inspiring.

Lyrically Newsom paints pictures of a man who has been traumatised by a great war (maybe a metaphorical mental illness), to the point of it contaminating his dreams. She opens the track exactly how Homer’s greek epics would. This being right in the middle of a battleground. She exaggerates this by starting with an ‘And’. Wonderfully unconventional. 

Newsom tells winding stories of consoling this man. She goes out of her way to help him the best she can. If that being going to the river to collect a pain killer plant or using sex to keep him afloat. The latter bringing her backlash from ‘common folk’. There are many moments about femininity being frowned upon by those who don’t understand the predicament of the relationship. Most likely one where she’s not there for love but because he needs her to stop himself from cutting himself (especially prevalent in the ‘scrape your knee its only skin’ section). It is heart wrenching as he always ends up back in the same state of mental strain. Newsom uses a fascinating connection to the greek king Sisyphus in relation to his needs. One who was punished by having to push a huge rock up a hill throughout eternity. A hopeless and constant burden, where the male can only be addicted to anesthetic as he is paralysed mentally. 

“But always up the mountainside you’re clambering. Groping blindly, hungry for anything. Picking through your pocket linings. Well, what is this? Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus’. 

Contrasting this luscious arrangement is the sparse ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’. The only track on the record with just Newsom and her harp. Lyrically Newsom presents a philosophical view on the eternal. She ruminates on life as a set of stairs where each mistake is a tolling bell. She questions those around her if they will stay by her side after making these mistakes. Looking to her friends, lover and aborted child. The bell comes up on numerous occasions as the song progresses perceiving an impending doom that death is at the end of this life.  

She looks to Zen Buddhism and playing her harp for consolation, she uses quotations to support the theories of a person needing to sacrifice their desires to reach a new wisdom. Through her harp playing she has reached that enlightened stage herself. 

‘It is terribly good to carry water and chop wood, streaked with soot heavy booted and wild eyes. As I crash through the rafters and the ropes and pulleys trail after and the holiest belfry burns sky high’.

There are intriguing taxidermy references describing being stuffed with ‘sawdust and diamonds’. Something that is made up of doing exactly what society will suggest you say and do in life. This however is an absurd way of living when we all end up dead sooner or later. Something that she has got to thinking about following the death of her aborted child. In which she references to a stuffed dove that is very close to her. There is beautiful metaphors about her relationship, in which she describes her and her lover as marionettes dealing with a sandcastle broken by a tide.

The quotation ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’ is very reminiscent to a poem referencing death in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’. Humbert Humbert says ‘I shall be dumped where the weed decays and the rest is rust and stardust’. This further following the structure of the song. A real beauty of Newsoms work is the literary and historical references laced throughout. Many which I have probably missed, being half as intellectual as Newsom.

These literary references are again shown in ‘Monkey and Bear’. Newsom’s feminist version of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. We are given a fable about a farm escape that could be referred to as an abusive relationship. The Monkey (male) manipulates the Bear (female) into working for his own good. He convinces Bear that from dancing for money they can move towards a carefree future. Yet he takes advantage of this not lifting a finger (or paw if you will) in the relationship. Newsom uses wordplay of ‘a fancy coat’ for the way bear is living. Here she is escaping one domineering world to enter another domineering world.

In the songs progression Bear moves away from Monkeys rules and escapes for good. She makes her living as a wild animal would. She sheds her fur and catches Minews in the pond with the coating. Hereby keeping herself alive with food and drink. It is simple, yet the way Newsom puts it is jaw droppingly awe inspiring. In this world it is okay to take risks and move forward alone. Like a child moving from stabilizers to riding a bike without. 

The album closes on a bitter note. Newsom pays tribute to a close friend who passed away while she was touring. Her appreciation for nature comes back as she mentions grieving in a corn field surrounded by moths. The moth being a symbol of grief, also appearing on the album cover. She brings back the point that ‘I can’t stop the night from coming in’ but there’s always the lights of her memories. The fond memories by ‘the water’ with the girl namely. Memories that are alike to those with ‘Emily’. There is a gut wrenching description of flowers on the girls body at the funeral, along with the corpses decay over time.

‘Dried rose petal, red-brown circles. Framed your eyes and stained your knuckles’

The record closes with the voice cracking desperation of Newsom repeating ‘And I miss your precious heart’. It is enough to cause spine chilling goosebumps and brings the listener into a state of thought about mortality. Something that is a prevalent concept on the record. 

Ys is a philosophical journey looking into the mortality of life, strength of femininity, memories and relationships. A beautiful thing. Her other projects are worthwhile too. Especially ‘Have One On Me’ . If I were to review that I would have to pen a book. It is 2 hours and 3 discs long.

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