Steve Albini, Jim O’Rourke, Van Dyke Parks: These aren’t the kinds of names you would normally expect to be associated with the sophomore effort of an impish, fairytale princess who happens to be a classically trained harpist. Then again, Joanna Newsom is hardly the innocent young girl with a knack for turns of phrase who released The Milk-Eyed Mender two and a half years ago. She’s a determined, hyper-literate woman who knows exactly what she’s doing.
As long as we’re debunking misconceptions, we might as well toss out that “freak-folk” tag as well. Whether or not Newsom looks like she just stepped out of a renaissance fair is beside the point: With Ys, she has evolved beyond the confines of that scene, her ambition and precision owing more to her classical background than to any folk tradition.
It’s hard to label what Newsom has accomplished as anything short of — clichés be damned — epic. From the lavish orchestration courtesy of Van Dyke Parks to the richness and sheer abundance of language at Newsom’s disposal, Ys is a supreme achievement. The fantastical stories that unfurl throughout each of the five songs are captivating enough that you lose sight of their excessive length. With each subsequent listen, individual lines will pop out at you, and you’ll wonder all over again how you could possibly have missed something so profound. Picking a favorite is almost tantamount to a parent choosing between their children, but right now I’m partial to this: “Darling, we will be fine, but what was yours and mine appears to me a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes.”
The album’s other true revelation is the transformation in Newsom’s vocals. The idiosyncrasies of her delivery that were so divisive in the past have been tempered here. Newsom’s voice is still as distinctive as ever, it’s simply a little more palatable for the general public. You have to wonder how much is owed to Albini’s studio wizardry, but it in the end it’s the results that count.
If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that Parks’s arrangements — however much they complement the songs — have a tendency to overpower Newsom’s playing at times. This is unfortunate because it masks the marked increase in sophistication and skill she exhibits on this album. The tour-de-force that Newsom puts on throughout the unaccompanied “Sawdust & Diamonds” draws added attention to this. Such quibbles aside, Ys remains among the year’s greatest musical achievements and irrevocably shields Newsom from any criticism of owing her success to novelty.
“Sprout & The Bean” video