The Past Imperfect

Joanna Newsom redefines lost languages

There's a part in the recent Haruki Murakami novel Kafka on the Shore where two characters discuss a sonnet. It's a long and difficult song, rife with glaring imperfections, and the pair of listeners love it. One mentions that an admiring critic once rechristened the tune "Heavenly Tedious." Heavenly Tedious, imperfectly perfect, is the right name for the recent music of 24-year-old harpist, poet, and folk-composer Joanna Newsom. The five songs on her new album Ys ask a lot of the listener, pesky demands ranging from a good dictionary (unless you already know what yarrow, asterisms, and stone fruit are), to a tolerance for her keening, cat-in-heat voice. The heaviest, strangest thing Ys requires is your concentration — it's tedious (and unfamiliar) to have to pay attention to an intense stranger for 17 minutes of peculiar wordplay and sprawling songcraft, as you must do to understand the album's centerpiece "Only Skin"; but your reward is a squirming, resentful sort of rapture, and a profound, cosmic kick in the head.

When she appeared as part of the early '00s emerging freak-folk situation, Newsom was a coltish S.F. local with a homespun album of off-kilter, harp-plucked pop songs. The Milk-Eyed Mender was a collection of small and beautiful works, rough-sounding but well educated: DIY meets MFA. On Ys (rhymes with "please," or this being Joanna Newsom, "Indochinese," "Neufchatel cheese," and "wasting disease,") she leaves the local pound and turns up with a pedigreed record — Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke have their unassailably hip mitts all over it, and Van Dyke Parks, patriarch of baroque pop, helms a full orchestra of tympanis and clarinets and violas and banjoes and other lush bells and whistles in the service of Newsom's newly epic vision. For all its clean studio glamour, the album still belongs to Newsom's imperfections — it's packed with obsolete maritime terms and retro-peasant imagery, and her syncopated harp rhythms and ungainly mewl sound even odder against Parks' buttery orchestrations.

Though she professes annoyance at the media's favored image of Newsom as a medieval forest sprite, the cover of Ys is a slightly clumsy Renaissance painting of Newsom ... as a medieval forest sprite. These songs exist in a bucolic, rural Neverland, where people might still have workaday use for the distinction between, as the opening lines of Yshave it, "the meadowlark, and the chim-choo-ree, and the sparrow," or later, between "the sorrel and the roan ... the chestnut, the bay, and the gelding grey" (for all you city kids, those are horses). It's not neo-hippie silliness, or English-major wankery, to use these and the scores of other outmoded terms that crop up on the album; Newsom marshals words, just like Van Dyke Parks marshals an orchestra, to give us back a richness that's been streamlined out of the language. Try to not enjoy saying this (perhaps meaningless) line out loud: "Picking through your pocket lining, what is this? Scrap of sassafras, eh, Sisyphus?"

Joanna Newsom: Baroque accessories.
Amy Cobden
Joanna Newsom: Baroque accessories.

"I'm actually terrible at Scrabble," Newsom says by phone, laughing and shrugging off her hypervocabulary, "and at crosswords." She is wandering around Eugene, Ore., looking for a cup of coffee. She bristles, politely, at my use of the term "archaic" to describe her lyrical imagery, and then launches into a spontaneous and highly technical defense of her use of the word "spelunking" in the song "Monkey & Bear."

That song, which regrettably does rhyme "monkey" with "spelunking" at one point, is the most difficult on the album, not because it's unpleasant or asks for a long attention commitment (it's jaunty and clocks in at a comparatively brief nine minutes), but because it's like looking at a consumptive baby dolled up for the Renaissance Faire. It's a sorry fable of a failed relationship, and like the rest of the album, it's at once uncomfortably direct and thickened with strange verbiage. It's also literally about a scheming monkey and a dancing bear, and though the sad tale is rife with wandering-minstrel orchestral foppery and anthropomorphic goofiness, if you can listen without smirking you'll hear the monkey and bear dance through a very heavy story of romantic ownership and of the problems of loss and human devotion. If Ys was a smaller work, we could call it a "breakup album," but the thing is so confoundingly, transcendently expansive that even a fairy tale about a failed primate-ursine pairing can grasp your jugular and squeeze you into a higher consciousness.

In contrast, "Sawdust & Diamonds" is bare and relentlessly devastating, a nautically themed tour into emotional oblivion. Newsom is alone with her harp and her memories of a lost love on this one, and the song is so clear in its regret, pain, and tenderness that it needs no fillip from Parks to overpower the listener. "Drop a bell down the stairs. Hear it fall forevermore," she sings hesitantly, in the best line about grief-stricken post-relationship confusion ever. And later she sings to the lost lover, "they will recognize all the lines of your face/ in the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter," and really the whole 10-minute song can be distilled to these two bitter gems. The other 92 lines are the heavenly tedium, lolling along as bright and unfathomable as the waves bearing the lovesick narrator out to sea.

"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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