The Past Imperfect

Joanna Newsom redefines lost languages

"I do believe that you should say what you have to say in as few words as possible," says Newsom, a graduate of the famously experimental Mills College music school, of her newly protracted songs. "And with these stories and this record I had to take the shortest form possible without a vulgar abbreviation of the ideas. All of them, I felt like I couldn't make them shorter, where on the first album I did end up shortening the songs. On this one I felt like it would be a disservice ... at a certain point I'd stopped writing 'pieces,' and I started writing 'songs.' Because [the songs on Ys] needed to be long because of the subject matter, I allowed myself to return to some musical ideas that I hadn't thought about since I left school and stopped studying musical composition."

The funny thing is that not long ago, people still had a taste for "pieces," when entertainment existed in the form of storytelling and you'd have to sit still and listen to another person for a while if you wanted to be transported out of your little brain and into the larger scope of human culture. It's no good crying over lost arts, though, and if Newsom was only playing at olde tyme balladeer we'd just have a grad student in elfin clothes boring us with terms from an 18th-century botanical encyclopedia. These songs keep what must have been good about the Old World, where people could name all the plants in a field and would recite Homer for fun, innate qualities we've deemed tedious and shed. She's married those archaic elements to a modern sensibility that scrounges for a scholarship to study avant-garde composition at Mills and can't help probing our deepest psychological pains. Ys is a testament to what we've lost and to what we're capable of finding.

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