After the unexpected success of her 2004 debut, The Milk-eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom quietly disappeared from the public eye. She had charmed the entire indie music community with her unabashedly off-kilter vocal delivery and idiosyncratic harp playing, and it seemed that her most lucrative opportunities would lie in rigorous touring and promotion of the debut record. Instead, Newsom shacked up with Van Dyke Parks and made a wonderful follow-up album that sounds more like an epic poem than a traditional song cycle.

Morgan Morel
Joanna Newsom, queen of indie – and of the elves. (Courtesy of Drag City)

Ys is a focused and expertly crafted musical statement – its five story-songs cling together, bound inextricably by Newsom’s vivid lyrical motifs. In “Emily,” the album’s 12-minute opening vignette, Newsom dances effortlessly through ancient biblical prophecies, astronomical observations and vivid geographical portraits: “Though there is nothing would help me come to grips / with a sky that is gaping and yawning / there is a song I woke with on my lips / as you sailed your great ship towards the morning.” The song feels like an ancient fable, but it remains elusive in its meanings, choosing oblique metaphorical twists instead of straightforward plot. The string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks are bold and inventive, though never overbearing, and his work is quietly respectful of the album’s lyrical complexity. The cellos and violins flail and crescendo in calculated response to her vocal hiccups.

“Monkey and Bear” opens with a tightly woven four-part harmony and a more expansive orchestra, employing clarinets, flutes and horns. The arrangements imply a musical sophistication that’s in sharp contrast to the song’s rural and grounded diction: “Now her coat drags through the water / bagging with a life’s worth of hunger / limitless minnows / in the magnetic embrace / balletic and glacial / of bear’s insatiable shadow.”

The density of the album’s compositions is astonishing, each with a meaning that reveals itself slowly, without fully exposing a character’s intentions or intimate desires. Newsom has created a world all her own that exists firmly in the surreal, but maintains a timeless quality. “And there was a booming above you / that night black airplanes flew over the sea / and they were lowing and shifting like beached whales, shelled snails, as you strained and squinted to see / the retreat of their hairless and blind cavalry.” In one moment she recalls the poetic prowess of Homer’s “Odyssey.” In the next, she harnesses her lyrical pretense and conjures the earnest simplicity of Uncle Remis folk tales, never pausing to announce her narrative fluctuations.

An all-star cast of musical minds came together to shape the overall sound of this record. Parks brought his Broadway-inflected take on classicism, while Jim O’Rourke and Steve Albini molded the album’s more subtle aspects, allowing Newsom to deliver her stories through a carefully constructed mix of sound.

But it’s Newsom herself who deserves the lion’s share of praise for the music’s success. Her growth and maturity as an artist is a revelation, and unique in the current world of pop music, where most artists tend to remain in their musical safety zones. The evolution that took place between her two albums is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s growth from Freewheelin’ to Highway 61, the sound of a musician defiantly abandoning the comforts of previous songs while redefining what the word “song” actually means.

Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Joanna Newsom
Drag City

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