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.
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.