(Drag City; 2006)
By Mark Abraham & Peter Hepburn | 10 November 2006
Mark: Dear Toronto jackass who also attended Joanna Newsom’s concert on October 4th:
Let’s get a few things straight about fantasy boyfriends and girlfriends. Paul Rudd is my fantasy boyfriend, but that’s because I get weak-kneed just thinking about his hilarious hissy fit in Wet Hot American Summer where he is a character; I’m not going to show up at his premier and scream “I love you,” over and over again. Seeing people across a cafeteria, on your public transit commute, on a stage in front of you—those are characters too, because you build them. Airing your unrequited bullshit fantasy for an audience of people who aren’t interested is sort of cute the first time, but when you keep doing it?
Because, look, I get that Newsom sort of plays folk, and that intimate environment lends itself to audience interaction, and I’m all about the breaking down of barriers between audience and performer, but only when the result of that dissolution is a space where the community created interacts and their collective, diverse desires are amplified by that culture. Interrupting every mid-song break by shouting “I love you” with a little too much look-at-me-I’m-talking-to-Joanna-really-loudly inflection in your voice—that’s not about interacting with the performer; that’s about power, and taking control of the room, and for all of your sweet-indie-sensitive-swagger you’re just couching conservative neo-regurgitations of sexism even more insidiously, assuming that “Joanna” (sweet, cute, sensitive harpist) is there to service your fantasy.
That’s incredibly depressing, I think, because I don’t want sexism (or racism, or heterosexism) in my concert environment, and while Newsom certainly is sweet and pleasant, she is those things only after being a fabulously incendiary musician and an incredible intellect. Witness the way she is trying to break away from the “freak folk” moniker. Witness the way she refuses to discuss her music in terms of its cuteness—it is cute, but it’s incredibly serious shit. Witness the way, caught in the headlights, alone on stage, but still polite, she’s forced to—increasingly agitatedly—suck a “thanks” between her teeth every time you express your “love.” Next time just whip out your dick and scream for her to show you her tits.
You and your gross politics will never be part of my scene,
Peter: Wow man: pointless. That’s the last time I agree to let you “rant a bit” in a review. You said it would be vaguely pertinent…
Mark: I kind of think it is. I think a large part of how this album will be received is based on how we like to simultaneously exalt and crucify—and a simpler term for that is “objectify”—our indie heroes. Newsom’s leap from harp-wielding scarecrow-fantasy troubadour to her new harbinger/oracle approach here is one of those moments where we as an indie community have to step lightly: the album is okay, but I’m afraid people are going to lurve it, and hug it, and wallow in it, and…that’s what this guy was doing. He kept screaming “Only Skin” like she was going to sing it directly to him and it was going to be an experience, and even aside from the politics I’ve just expressed, his goopy whatever made me want to vomit. Like: “you downloaded it or got a promo? Shut up, wanklor.” She’s wearing a dead animal on her head in the promo shots, people—pay attention to the semiotics.
Peter: So you don’t like it?
Mark: Sort of. I’m wary of hype. I’m also wary of giving this album too much credit just because it’s a big fat indie wet-dream, with Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke and Van Dyke Parks kicking it medieval oldschool on the boards and charts, because I think it sounds exactly like what that sounds like it will sound like, but…still.
Peter: Okay, but I think it’s possible to separate objectification and hype from just really liking this album. Worrying about hype you can start to miss the point that the album itself is quite good. I mean, surely you can agree that Ys is, by all accounts, a startling sophomore effort. Newsom is playing at a whole new game here, and this album is a shocking, beautiful, and massive step forward from The Milk Eyed-Mender (2004). Which Drag City is obviously acutely aware of, since they sent out promo copies of Ys pretty early for us beloved Internet music critics—
Mark: Maybe too early.
Peter: See, I don’t agree. We’ve had nearly three months with this album, and I still barely know what to make of it. One thing I am sure of, though: Ys has become my album of the year.
Peter: Oo-ii-ooh, you’re so different.
Mark: Okay, fine, let’s hear your case.
Peter: Reasons to love this album: first, listen to her voice. That voice—which brought such great criticism and so many strange comparisons last time around—seems drastically different. Partly due to Albini’s recording, I’m sure, capturing every inflection and twitch; but her range of delivery has also expanded significantly. No longer is she the creepy-little-girl/woodland-witch; honestly, for most of the album she sounds quite normal. Not that I was put off by her voice on the debut, but it seems like it might have been something of a crutch that she’s done away with here.
Then listen to the lyrics—or, even better, pick up the record and its novella of a booklet and actually read them. The Milk-Eyed Mender, for all its silliness and charm, gave me the feeling that Newsom had written many of the songs with a rhyming dictionary at hand. Ys, on the other hand, is a maturation of her entire approach; references are no longer to dragons and ships, but rather to Greek mythology, Hemingway, Whitman, and Woolf. Things don’t rhyme quite the same way, and the emotional pull isn’t nearly as immediate, but given time there are pieces and fragments here that are stronger—more devastatingly honest—than anything I’ve heard in a long time. These are songs of love and longing and trying to deal with the complicated and magical yet sometimes mundane world around us.
And how fantastic is Parks’ work is on this album? The orchestration makes so much sense for Newsom, and yet never leaves her overly comfortable. Strings flit around; bass lines materialize and dissolve; themes are introduced, elaborated, removed, and come back with the emotional force of a sledgehammer. To have it mixed so expertly by O’Rourke is a blessing: he’s skillful enough to never let her drift too high above the mix, nor try to sublimate her to a string section that at points seems to be channeling Stravinsky on acid.
Mark: Okay—here is what I will agree with. Everybody needs to recognize immediately that this is not a sequel to The Milk-Eyed Mender, and that our daydreams of bean sprouts and medieval song craft are irrelevant to Newsom’s progress as a composer. But also recognize that, with all of its brilliance, with all of its erratically beautiful behavior, with all of those how-the-fuck-did-she-just-play-that? moments, it’s just a lot of the same moments over and over again. I just think that I could have heard “Only Skin” or “Emily” and there’s all the catharsis I’ll get from this album. Listening to five tracks of it—they’re all punching the exact same emotional buttons, often in the same order. Also, Newsom’s skill as a harpist has clearly improved, but she’s writing the songs in the same way, so Parks is left sort of doing the same thing—awesomely, but still the same—on each track. Which is finding some abstract calculus formula to insert the neatest string lines into every crevice, but—if the two songs with ampersands in their titles were cut, would it matter?
Peter: Absolutely. For one, the second song with an ampersand—“Sawdust & Diamonds”—is fantastic, and, as the only track without Parks’ contributions, gives us a look at the structure of the songs without all the orchestral flourishes. To me, seeing that core, and what she can do with harp and voice for ten minutes, is not only a much-needed break but also quite compelling. Second, while the songs do share a general form (i.e. long harp tracks), it’s pretty loose; she’s still broadly eschewing choruses and repetition, and there are sections in each that strike me as entirely unique. How similar do you really consider the vaguely folksy “Monkey & Bear” and the brutally raw “Cosmia”? If she were to make a series of albums exactly like this then yes, I can understand it getting tedious. But these are five songs.
I find that with time, the separate tracks start to imprint themselves upon you. I was worried, too—at first—that with tracks this long, Newsom would be stretching for material that simply wasn’t there, emerging instead with patchworks and fragments. In fact, on first listen, that’s about what I heard, and I wasn’t terribly fond of it. Then I found myself humming the central harp lines to “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” nonstop, and the rest grew on me from there.
As for “Only Skin” and “Cosmia,” well…if you can listen to those two songs and maintain your composure, you’re probably just not paying enough attention.
Mark: That, or the newfound popularity of my soullessness here at the Glow (where “Mark Abraham” = jerk who doesn’t like stuff everybody else likes, including, but not limited to, the Shins) is actually real. But you’re right. “Only Skin” is fantastic—
Peter: It’s easily the best thing Newsom has ever recorded.
Mark: Sure. I guess I just don’t agree about these songs being all that different. Every other song on the album has the same crevices and pockmarks, and all the Van Dykes in the world don’t change the fact that these are insanely long harp tracks with string accompaniment (bar one). His arrangements are very pretty, but, like, did nobody in the studio say, “hey—all of these songs have that same breakdown. How you gonna differentiate that five times, Mr. SMiLE?” I jokingly said on the board it was our generations Blonde on Blonde (1966), but even Blonde on Blonde has moments like “Rainy Day Women” to use as signposts.
Peter: But he does differentiate them; maybe not as much as you’d like, but I really hear totally different stories in each of these.
Also, I’m not trying to say Ys is a perfect album by any means, and I’m sure other people besides you will get hung up on its length and sameness. But if you give it a chance (or maybe even a dozen chances, if you can stand it), and don’t immediately dismiss it because it’s by Joanna, I’m sure you’ll find something to love.
Mark: I’m not saying I hate it, though. In fact, I think it’s an incredibly important album, and I hope it will inspire other songwriters to start embracing the long-song format again. I just find it incredibly hard to actually sit through the album and pay attention the entire time.
Peter: Ah, to be part of the ADHD generation.
Mark: Now now—that’s a bit of a straw man argument. To me, this album is “Only Skin” and “Emily” and three other tracks that sound a lot like those ones. To me, the album is fantastic in theory, in approach, in its big fuck you to people who embraced or dismissed her as some sort of of-the-land pixie songstress, in its lyrical scope, and in the arrangements and harp playing, but none of that means in practice it has to be awesome. Take “Only Skin” and run, is what I say.
Peter: But you also like the Spice Girls.
Mark: I’m just saying that this is a good album, but the initial shock, for me at least, fades every time I listen.