Joanna Newsom possesses genius on a ridiculous number of levels. She plays pixie folk music on a harp, but doesn’t rest on the mere novelty of the idea. Her lyrics are stream-of-consciousness, but she has two things that run counter to this type of songwriting: an unimpeachable sincerity and a complex composition style that never forgets the primal force of a good melody.
This was all perfected on 2003’s standout “Milk-Eyed Mender”; on “Ys,” she gives us five epic tracks, each 7 to 16 minutes long — and there isn’t a single moment when she doesn’t shine.
However, the presentation of “Ys” is, shall we say, divisive. Producer Steve Albini and mixer Jim O’Rourke — dogmatic studio purists — leave Newsom sounding muddy and claustrophobic. Further, Van Dyke Parks provides orchestral arrangements, as he has done for many other pieces of music over the decades. Unfortunately, his arrangements on this record sometimes sound as if he has actually done them for those other pieces of music. These two problems will be solved, of course, if Newsom releases solo live recordings of the songs.
“Ys” is still essential music though. Like Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush or Bjork, Newsom is a pure artist, funneling influences unselfconsciously into something original.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.