Depending, of course, on location and musical habitat, I’d say that for every ten or so people you question, perhaps only one will truly understand the greatness and complexity of Joanna Newsom and her debut album from Drag City, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Those nine unfortunate souls will at first wonder just what to make of her nimble and delicate voice as it skitters across her Lyon & Healy style fifteen harp (or “Stacy,” as she calls it) before finally deciding it’s not for them. This makes no difference to that one person, however. Quite, quite the opposite.
That one person will embark toward a completely new world — a folkish fantasy land, or fairy tale, if you will — filled with endearing and mystical images of catenaries and dirigibles, kings and counselors, bones and pinecones, fawns and ferns, impossible birds in a steady, illiterate movement homeward, palaces and storm clouds and the way it will all come together, in quietness, in time. Each of the twelve tracks, produced by Noah Georgeson, reveal her inspirations — her friend and touring partner Devendra Banhart, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, the Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday — but her music is incomparable, I don’t use that word loosely.
In opener “Bridges and Balloons,” Newsom begins her journey weaving through a loopy sea shanty on the hopeful high of love, singing: “Oh, my love/ Oh it was a funny little thing, to be the ones to’ve seen.” She charms us on piano in her “almost-ballad” “This Side of the Blue,” delightfully resonating verses like: “And the rest of our lives will the moments accrue/ When the shape of their goneness will flare up anew/ Then we do what we have to do (re-loo, re-loo).” And she perks our ears with “Peach, Plum, Pear,” singing “I have read the right books/ to interpret your looks/ you were knocking me down with the palm of your eye,” before trailing off in a piercing chant. And it is all so tender and so powerful.
For that one out of ten, Joanna Newsom will become, at first, an obsession. Then, an addiction. Finally, that person will realize just how astonishing this young San Franciscan truly is. She’s cultivated an aesthetic of playful innocence, and though it’s easy to dismiss her music as fey, pretentious, or contrived, it’s none of these things. It’s delightful and affecting in the oddest of ways. What Joanna Newsom gives those who understand her is not just some lighthearted fairytale narrative but a brilliantly strung-together evocation of the child in all of us.