Intellectually I recognize that there are people out there who dislike Joanna Newsom. For more than a few people, her mannered, nasal vocals are the deal-breaker. Others find her tricky, polysyllabic lyrics pretentious, or just have a hard time taking seriously an elfin woman playing indie rock on the harp. She can be interpreted, in a word, as twee.
I don’t see her that way at all. I’m a passionate partisan of Newsom and her music. She can bring me to the brink of tears through the power of her songs alone; the only other musicians or composers with that power are Glen Branca and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom work in a much higher artistic register than most of Newsom’s folky peers. Where other people see her lyrics as insufferably arch, I see one of the last great lyric poets still writing in English (this:
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.
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.
is one of the most indelible, durable and delicate bits of poetry I’ve encountered since last wrestling with Ruth Stone – and much more cheerful to boot). And both her singing and harp playing are idiosyncratic are deeply accomplished.
She’s also caught a certain amount of backlash for being part of the loosely-affiliated “freak folk” scene that came out of San Francisco a few years ago. If you’d been around here then, you would have known that folks like Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Joanna Newsom and Brightblack Morning Light were thrown together by circumstance more than anything else; there was nothing schematic about how they all came to prominence at the same time. I can’t harsh on people for getting annoyed at the hypewagon rolling over their toes, but if that’s your most substantive problem with Joanna you should probably give her another listen.
And if, like some critics I’ve read, you think she takes herself way too seriously, what’s the problem? Her commitment to her music is near-total and she’s unapologetic about her intelligence (anyone who makes “…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?” work has forgotten more about English than most of us will ever know), and the music she makes is the product of a confident, brilliant mind, and o see how it shines.