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Ys by Joanna Newsom

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Reviewed on 9th November 2006.

 
 

Ys

By Joanna Newsom

This is an interesting beast. It's a mere five tracks in length, but sprawls out over an hour's playing time. Its lyrics include lines like 'the thought troubled the monkey, for he was afraid of spelunking down in those caves' and the booklet containing them weighs in at a mammoth 32 pages. The front cover features an imposing painting of Newsom herself, holding a sickle and a picture of a moth, and the title refers to the legend of an ancient French city, built by the King for his daughter, and destroyed by water to punish its inhabitants. Above all this, though, it's curious because it manages to be one of the finest records released in years, without always making it obvious exactly why this should be the case. It's pretentious, confusing, and highly inaccessible - that this adds to its obscure appeal as opposed to detracting from it is a special feat indeed.

Written by Newsom, recorded by Steve Albini and orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks, it's certainly a collaborative effort when juxtaposed with 2004 debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. It's important to enter this record knowing that Parks' orchestra is equally prominent as Joanna's harp and vocal. Present on all but the middle track, the orchestra arrangement dips and twists, intertwining with Newsom's always inventive vocal melodies and melding seamlessly with her phenomenal harp playing. Whereas The Milk-Eyed Mender flourished through its nakedness, Ys uses its texture almost as its forefront aspect. The beauty here, though, is created both through the use of depth, and through its absence: occasionally, Joanna takes us back to the harp and her voice, and this newfound dynamic provides for some of the most breathtakingly beautiful passages of music in a long while. Only rarely do the strings in particular take over a little too much for comfort, but even these occasions manage to add to the dramatic effect of the pieces.

It's an exceptionally clever album. Inevitably, it'll be criticised for being so. Newsom's lyrics are largely poetry of the highest calibre, but she has a tendency to slip into a sort of Tolkeinesque tongue every so often, which comes across ever-so-slightly contrived, and will certainly alienate some. She makes up for it, though, with some moments of sheer lyrical beauty ('The hills are groaning with excess, like a table ceaselessly being set') that have you rewinding and appreciating time and time again. Its structure is epic, which will fascinate some and put off others. Sections playfully return ten minutes after you thought you'd left them behind. Verses and choruses combine into one, flowing together effortlessly. Tunes meander thoughtfully for minutes on end, slowing and softening, before giddily breaking into a brand new section. In one case, during opening track 'Emily', a long-lost melody from The Milk-Eyed Mender returns, just briefly, an appreciative wink at her more ardent fans. It's not a dissimilar record, structurally, to The Mars Volta's sophomore album Frances The Mute, only here we're treated to stretches of beautiful strings sections, as opposed to unnecessary noise. It's an incredible achievement, and one that becomes more evident after a number of listens, but it can be confusing to begin with, particularly to those accustomed to the straightforward musical nature of Newsom's debut.

And, of course, there's her quirky voice, which will undoubtedly repel as many as it attracts. It's the juvenile offspring of Bjork and James Blunt: brash and piercing, but smooth and sexy at the same time. On a clearly positive note, Newsom's control over her voice has improved infinitely since her last release, and she seems to have learnt to use it as an instrument in its own right, as opposed to a mere means of carrying the lyric. While retaining its uniqueness, it has a more mature tone - a statement which could equally be applied to the album as a whole.

Indeed, whereas The Milk-Eyed Mender relied on its stripped-bare, na´ve sound, Ys provides the absolute opposite. With this extraordinary album, Joanna Newsom has developed from an impressively original new musician into a fully-fledged master of her own special genre. Your taste or otherwise, it's an incredibly important record, a fantastic achievement, and an absolute, undeniable classic.

 

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