Joanna Newsom: Ys

Ys Cover by Benjamin Vierling
Ys by Joanna Newsom Review
[9:18:54 PM] caroline: literally have cried
[9:18:56 PM] caroline: 20 times
[9:19:03 PM] Jonathan Ben-Menachem: hahahha i kept crying listening to it on the train
[9:19:08 PM] caroline: i always cry
[9:19:10 PM] caroline: i cried today


The crunch of leaves underfoot, a hidden woodland sanctuary home to magical animals that dance and sing. Flowered meadows relinquish into mountains. Clouds billow like wraiths in the summery sky. Somewhere in the imperceptible distance is Nevada City, innocence preserved in Joanna Newsom’s childhood home – the imagery invoked by Ys is simultaneously rooted in realism and fantasy. The album’s name, according to Newsom, is a reference to a mythological island off the coast of Brittany, home to a druidic folktale about a harpy and a drowning city. The album is not a retelling of a fairytale, but rather Newsom’s own collection of fairytales, avant-garde interpretations of the ebb and flow of the human condition. In the artist’s own words : “songs reaching their resolution – some of them don’t resolve, but they reach a climax, or, they reach a point where something goes under the water, something drowns of [sic] sinks or floods, or changes beneath the water, and the water is a huge force of changing and starting over, and destruction.” The verbosity and cohesiveness makes Joanna Newsom’s 2006 masterpiece Ys ethereal and timeless, existing in an imaginary plane just outside of the modern world.

For all its inaccessibility, the spell woven by Ys is deeply rooted in mythology while still maintaining its intimately personal glimpse into Joanna Newsom’s mind. In “Monkey and Bear”, Newsom’s poetry examines the notions of captivity and and decadence in a secluded woodland forest, inhabited by a monkey and bear who escaped the cage of a hay-monger (“That charlatan, with artless hustling”) and struggle to find a place outside the bonds of imprisonment. Newsom’s voice crescendos from frail and quavering to triumphant, as Bear escapes from the conditional love of her primate companion: (“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 overall effect of the album is magical, waxing and waning through the fairytale-like songs that present no clear thesis, as the artist intended: “it’s supposed to be scary and strange and disorienting and it’s not supposed to be clear what’s happening.” There are clear recurring objects in the album: birds, flowers, stars, and bones. Yet Newsom doesn’t dwell on symbolism, and her leitmotifs are narrative props in the backdrop of her lore. References to the Pleiades and Sibyl are easy to miss, erudite reminders that Newsom is a well-read individual, drawing from literary traditions of ancient mythology as well as Faulkner’s Americana.

Our songstress does not yield to explain her allusions, instead layering them into her poetry to be discovered and savored. Multiple listenings unravel deeply embedded depiction of the Newsom’s own growth and womanhood. “Emily” is a vignette of stargazing and sisterhood poised somewhere between Ys’ fairytale world and Newsom’s sheltered California childhood. In “Emily”, Newsom’s ode to her astrophysicist sister by the same name, she warbles (“Pa pointed out to me, for the hundredth time tonight/ The way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light.”). This is Newsom’s poetic depiction of the star Arcturus’ arc following the handle of the big dipper. Much of her prose is similarly laden with allegory and myth, proving immensely rewarding to the active listener willing to follow Newsom’s narrative with a lyric sheet.

Clocking in at 12 minutes, “Emily” is only the second longest track on the album. “Only Skin”, at just over 16 minutes, alludes to death, addiction, struggle, love, and sexuality, never settling on one texture or melody, instead cycling between them and weaving them into something tangible and heartbreaking (“Everything with wings is restless”). Her prose is labyrinthian (“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?”), but unceasingly introspective. Newsom is not retelling the story of her childhood, romance, or fairy tale, but instead exploring ideas and traditions and reinterpreting them through song.

The lyricism is beautiful its its own right as poetry, but Ys’ tangibly evocative arrangement is a worthy purlieu to Newsom’s arcane lyricism. Each song has movements, melodies building and harmonizing upon other melodies, recalling traditions of classical music and romanticism. Working with composer Van Dyke Parks, the sound of the orchestration is a helpful sprite, swelling theatrically with Newsom’s emotional tension, and cradling her sadness waxed eloquent in thorny prose. Van Dyke Parks’ composition is a deliberate protagonist, a mythical companion to Newsom’s story rather than a backdrop. Even on “Cosmia”, which prominently features a dreamy harp melody repeated, the song is moved by swooping strings and a haunting accordion. One of the most memorable moments of the album is when Newsom pierces and pushes against the violin-heavy string arrangement (“And miss! and miss!”).

What makes “Ys” so successful is that it is courageously unapologetic and self-indulgent. Newsom refuses to settle into a traditional song structure or pause upon a melody suited for airplay. Each song is a contained universe. It is so meticulously thought out, each melodic flourish and crescendo perfectly suited to the lyrics and designed to evoke an emotion. Her exploration of womanhood and femininity is poignant – Newsom may be vulnerable, (“are you mine? my heart? mine anymore?”) but her music is so powerful. Ys is a work of art.

-Caroline Bedard

Album is available on Spotify and iTunes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *