eople will get slipped discs hating this record. They will do creative things with expletives. Somewhere, probably on a message board, someone is looking for that unimpeachable verbal assassination of Joanna Newsom, the one that will be so righteously incisive that flowers will wilt and the hearts of hummingbirds will explode, mid-flight, and make the world sober again. They will all involve Bjork or elves or renaissance fairs or menstruation.
Unfortunately, they won’t talk about how the 24-year-old harpist is a little bit like Kate Bush—overly romantic, willful and pretentious, kind of annoying, batshit. And like Kate Bush, she’s a lady now, grown out from the weird conflation of wise old woman and squealy runt that appeared on 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. She was sweet back then; she showed a remarkable knack for wrapping the mundane in ribbon without ever strangling it; she encouraged a kind of indulgent domestic mysticism, stoking poetesses for their tiny boxes and typewriters, switching tender young men on to the idea that every damn remnant of experience is a talisman in waiting. Knit mittens, she whispered.
Ys isn’t any of that. Ys sounds very expensive and it does not need you to keep warm. Its five song-suites range from seven to seventeen minutes. The album’s cover suggests Neo-Renaissance, but it’s a Mannerist record: Venerable eccentric Van Dyke Parks, famous for his mid-60s work with Brian Wilson, arranged strings and oboes and other frillery, giving the album a distended, overly lush quality. Steve Albini recorded the vocals and harp tracks, stretching the contours of her voice into new, more irritating shapes, accentuating each squeak and trill. Jim O’Rourke mixed it. But Ys aches for the perfection of its weird distortions; it’s airtight. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller’s insightful coal ? ass ? diamond scenario, Ys doesn’t even have an orifice open for stuffing.
In that respect, Joanna Newsom has nothing to do with the ragged, celebratory Incredible String Band or Vashti Bunyan, who was so exhausted after a single incomparably low-key album that she needed a 30-year break to drink tea and raise plants. And Joni Mitchell was a confident vagabond and Sandy Denny went barefoot. Toss ’em. Ys is not a folk album because “folk” don’t read sheet music or fret over condenser mics; Ys is an immersive album of classical pop with proggy, cyclic structures, more long-winded than its hippie forbearers and twice as tiring because it bothers trying to sustain precision.
The thickness of the fantasy and emotional opacity bothered me at first. All of the sudden, she’d become unapproachable. Earthy bard takes to tower, turns phone on silent. All the tits, they’re covered in corset! But the more I listened, the more poignant her withdrawal sounded, the sadder each vainglorious fluffing became. At the time of The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom was just another brilliantly talented no-name from California with a harp, which is to say she was completely unique and ripe for what she’s become—an unlikely poster girl for everyone from North Brooklyn fashion designers to the Fader to “composers on the edge” (as classified recently by The New Yorker).
And while Ys is ridiculously overwritten, over-performed and self-contained, her fables always sublimate into the hot fog of real emotions just before they calcify. There’s always a citrus for the pork stew, a line as naked as “Follow me, my sweetest friend.” She has fits of honesty. A glimpse of something scared her; she sometimes sounds like an actor unraveling onstage.
On “Cosmia,” she says everything but “I’m sorry” to apologize. Having been away in the manger but far from docile, she comes back to tease in incredible ways, caught between actually loving and just being enthralled with the poetic possibility of it—like Kate Bush, it’s seeing a fire in front of your face without feeling heat. If anything, the axis of the album is on “Only Skin”: “Scrape your knee, it is only skin / Makes the sound of a violin.” Confessing your pain doesn’t humanize you, trying to cover it up does. And the more you dress that wound, the easier it is to notice.
If Ys belongs with Animal Collective’s Feels and TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain as a maturation of the production-conscious, willful “freak” zeitgeist to plain old indiedom, we’re in richer times than when the best indie had to offer was the fucking Arcade Fire. Before getting cranky about her idiosyncrasies, let’s not forget that the Hold Steady and Ghostface are always walking some line of self-parody; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be resonant as artists. And isn’t the condition of being compelled to something not even in spite of, but because of its bullshit and far-reaching tendrils of its pretenses—isn’t that, well, enchantment?