11/04/2011

Joanna Newsom - 'Ys'

Title: Ys
Artist: Joanna Newsom
Date: 2006
Genre: Indie Folk

Total length: 56 minutes, 5 tracks
Download link: MP3 (CBR 320)
Download link: MP3 (CBR 192)

Main personnel:
Joanna Newsom: Harp, pedal harp, vocals

Since an entire orchestra was used for this album I won't go any further than this one person.


Rating: 9/10 - Incredible
Compared to other albums of Joanna Newsom this album is a revelation. I wouldn't go as far as saying the other two albums are bad, but this is on a completely different level in my opinion.  This album impressed me right from the first note.  I found that on multiple listens it quickly becomes less impressive, but it's still worth it. It turns out that the lyrics are quite elaborate, which is something I noticed right from the start as well.
My advice is to just listen to this once. I'd be surprised if you are not impressed by this masterpiece. In fact this is the only album that ever made me shiver on first listen.


General comments: The title of the album, 'Ys', refers to a mythical city built on the coast of Britain. Legend has it that this city was swallowed by the ocean at some point. This is very much in line with the general medieval theme of the album. This album uses language that gives a very detailed image of landscapes and animals. Additionally the language uses a lot of sensory imagery, giving a very clear idea to the listener of what the scenes described by Newsom are like. It is interesting to note that most lyrics are directed to a 'you'.

Generally Newsom's voice is very warm and pleasing to the ear. The way she pronounces her verses make it almost impossible to make out the lyrics without having a lyrics sheet right in front of your nose. This is unfortunate, but there are vocalist with which I have far more problems making out the lyrics than with her.
I would advice listening to this album with the lyrics in front of you, in my opinion this makes it even more impressive. This is for two reasons, the first being that reading the lyrics will force your brain to focus on the song. If you don't do something like this your attention will quickly become diverted. The second reasons is that with the lyrics in front of you it's easier to interpret them.

Oh, and to my great annoyance this is just about the only album I have that does not have a square album cover. It annoys the heck out of me because my media player scales it back to a 1:1 ratio giving a stupid stretched face. *@#$%^&!!!

01 - Emily The opening song is one of the most powerful on the album. It starts out very easy with violin and various other orchestral instruments accompanying Newsom's harp and vocals. When she starts describing Emily at about 2:30 the music becomes more intense and engaging. This feeling of engagement is especially fueled by the overflowing amount of emotion present in her voice. This is especially true for the famous stanza about meteorites, meteors and meteoroids:
"The meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee

And the meteorite's just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee"
Interestingly she actually has the definitions mixed up. This is probably intentional as in the lyrics she promised to Emily that she would write down the correct definitions - but apperently she forgot.

The lyrics are about the narrator and her sister called Emily. The narrator sits next to Emily as she is skipping stones accross the river and telling the narrator about the stars and astrophysical phenomena. Apperently this song is based on Newsom's sister (who is in fact called Emily as well), and in real life she is a astrophysicist as well.
The imagery like on other songs in this album is very powerful. For example the following stanza gives such a clear image that it's almost like you are there yourself:
"And, Emily - I saw you last night by the river
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
Frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror"
 02 - Monkey & Bear Another very impressive song. This song is again very emotional and engaging. The instruments are again orchestral in addition to Newsom's harp and vocals. The string compositions are excellently done and give of a very warm and sweet sound to the music.
My favorite part is the point where the bear escapes from the monkey at  6:00. The way Newsom does one stanza per breath changes her tone during each stanza is just godlike. The first time I heard this part I was at the edge of my seat with tears in my eyes.

The lyrics are about a bear and monkey that escape from the clutches of man. The monkey convinces the bear to go with him on the promise of  the 'open country a - steeped in milk and honey'. On the journey towards this land the monkey convinces the bear to dance to make money, while the monkey only does this to fill his own pockets.Eventually the bear escapes after which the monkey chases after him when he was informed. When the monkey found the bear he was splashing around in a seaside cavern with great irrational joy. However when she went in further to the river she drowned. The bear in this story actually revers to the constellation ursa major.

03 - Sawdust & Diamonds Sonically this song is again very similar to the rest of the album, but musically speaking this is in my opinion the weakest on the album. Some people say it's the best on the album, but I just can't seem to have that 'click' with this song.
This song is more difficult to interpret as there is not really a plot happening. It's mainly the symbolism and themes that are important. Supposedly it's about eternity and life and death. I think it's also about the desire to live the eternal life with one's lover:
"though my wrists and my waist seemed so easy to break
still, my dear, I would have walked you to the very edge of the water
and they will recognise all the lines of your face
in the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter"
Although I don't really like this song as much as others, I have to admit that the lyrics are very impressive. For example the following stanza is especially impressive:
"and though it may be madness, I will take to the grave
your precious longface
and though our bones they may break, and our souls separate
- why the long face?
and though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil
- why the long face?"

04 - Only Skin This song is almost an entire sage at almost 17 minutes filled with vocals. The song starts out almost immediately with vocals, only preceded by a single long violin stroke. As Newsom says the word 'And' her voice breaks in a cute way, not unlike the squeak of a small furry animal. This is one of the things I like about her voice; her voice is like many good vocalists completely unique, and there is nobody I have heard that has a voice like her.
The song progresses in a fairly structured way. The vocals and harp are always playing and after some time the strings join in, after a couple stanzas the strings are dropped again. Occasionally the orchestra joins in too, sometimes even accompanied by a bass guitar. I am aware that I paint an awfully boring picture of this song, but doing a better (and more technical) description is simply beyond my capabilities. In reality it's actually quite amazing as the orchestra and string are in perfect harmony with Newsom's harp and vocals.

The lyrics are too complicated for me to interpret, so I will skip that step. On the other hand I can quickly discuss some of the most amazing parts of this songs, both lyrically and musically.

At 6:43 the following stanza is simply amazing. My heart dies a little every time I hear this:
but always up the mountainside you're clambering
groping blindly, hungry for anything:
picking through your pocket linings - well, what is this?
scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?

 Later on is another very beautiful stanza at 11:21,
the cities we passed were a flickering wasteland
but his hand in my hand made them hale and harmless
while down in the lowlands the crops are all coming;
we have everything
life is thundering blissful towards death
in a stampede of his fumbling green gentleness
  And finally at the very end of the song there is an incredibly powerful ending, not unlike the final dramatic conclusion of a good romantic drama:
clear the room! there's a fire, a fire, a fire
get going, and I'm going to be right behind you
and if the love of a woman or two, dear,
couldn't move you to such heights, then all I can do
is do, my darling, right by you

05 - Cosmia Right of the start this song tantalizes its listener with a hypnotic harp. In my opinion the Newsom plays the best harp on this song. In contrary to the other songs this song actually has multiple instrumental parts, rather than being vocals only. In addition to the slightly more catchy than usual vocals and relatively short length, this makes this the lightest song on the album. However, the song is still dramatic enough for it to be a good ending to the album. For example the harp played at towards the end of the song builds up an incredible suspense. The song climaxes at the final stanza in which the line "And I miss your precious heart" is repeated with great emotion.

This song is about the sudden death of a friend of Newsom. The friend is Cosmia. The night in the line: "I couldn't keep the night from coming in" symbolizes death. Her lonely nights by the river refer to her grieving and loneliness. I think the following stanza refers to Cosmia's ascending to heaven:
water were your limbs, and the fire was your hair
and then the moonlight caught your eye
and you rose through the air
well, if you've seen true light, then this is my prayer:
will you call me when you get there?
The first line refers to the body reverting back to the elements. The rising through the air and seeing true light refers to the ascension to heaven. The word 'there' in the final line probably refers to heaven itself, although it is unclear what is meant by 'call'.

The verdict As mentioned several times; the lyrics are simply excellent. Furthermore Newsom does an incredible job in expressing her emotions through the help of her weak and broken voice. Accompanied by her hypnotic harp and incredibly immersive string orchestra, this makes one of the most emotional albums I have ever heard.

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