About this time a couple of years ago, I had a stand-up row with a journalist from Kerrang! about the relative merits of Kate Bush. “Pointless, self-indulgent warbling…” is a phrase of mine that comes to mind, so why on earth am I so smitten by Joanna Newsom?
Her voice is equally idiosyncratic with a touch of Björk about it but instantly identifiable as Newsom nonetheless. Like the ancient mariner in the poem, she grabs us for a fantastical bag of tales. Layer after layer of meaning is painstakingly packed into these five songs. Each less like a traditional story or song than a kind of literary dry wall with magical words and phrasings stuffed carefully into every crevice. In this respect she is a musical trend of one with only Bob Dylan at his most obtuse as possible company.
“Her voice is annoying and sounds intensely artificial. I’d rather listen to Jay Z than this hipster trash any day. At least he’s honest. He likes bitches and money. What does she like? Seahorses.”
Comment on YouTube (showing she is an acquired taste)
Now this album sees her paired up with a mediaeval cornucopia of instruments and a painstaking eight-month long arranging process followed by an all analogue production process. So much effort but it is hard to hear anything beyond the voice and maybe Newsom’s harp but if you try, you’ll find there is a lot there.
Compared with her equally stunning debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Ys is less cute and off-beat replacing these qualities with textual density and painstaking musical work. It is thus less instant and unfashionably (who knows, even unwisely) demands the listener carves out a slice of Newsom time, slices long enough to try and follow these peculiar tales. Or at least give it a go. But how can you resist, after all no one says the word, ‘dar-ling’ quite like Newsom and when she asks you to dance, who could refuse?