For her second album, Ys, indie-folk icon Joanna Newsom got everything she asked for. She recruited Steve Albini to record her voice and harp, Van Dyke Parks to arrange and co-produce a 30-piece orchestra and ?Jim O’Rourke to mix. She commissioned a lavish cover painting and elaborate packaging, including a CD booklet coated in gold leaf. The music is a further indulgence: long songs (five ?in 55 minutes), thousands of words, dense imagery and nothing approaching a pop tune.
In every way, then, Ys is a challenge, expanding greatly on 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City). Newsom ?dazzled on her spare debut with instrumental virtuosity and a command of language, demonstrating a gift for turns of phrase that work terrifically as both lyrics and pure sound. And this talent, perhaps, compensated for her voice, with its pre-K girlish tone, dog-whistle squeaks and unusual timbre that sometimes brings to mind Björk.
Newsom brings all this to bear on the opening “Emily,” a shout-out to ?her harmony-singing little sister that veers from puffy fantasy (“The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow/Set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport of the pharaoh”) ?to magical-realist vignettes (“I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water/Frowning ?at the angle they were lost, and ?slipped under forever”) to a singsong mnemonic verse explaining the difference between a meteorite, a meteor ?and a meteoroid. The detail and astonishing lyricism are just compelling enough to make the meandering 12-minute journey worthwhile.
Despite his pedigree, Parks’ contributions on “Emily” and elsewhere on Ys are problematic. At their best, his arrangements serve as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action line by line, dropping out completely during certain transitions, then jumping back during dramatic shifts with busy swells of strings. “Monkey & Bear,” a love story out of the Brothers Grimm, finds Newsom spinning a yarn about a cross-species romance that ranges across Alpine meadows and into dank caves. Parks’ accompanying score is appropriately cartoonish, even funny, the woodwinds and violins becoming characters in a way that would make Carl Stalling proud.
But “Monkey & Bear” is an exception. More often, the strings ?seem like unnecessary clutter, getting in the way of Newsom’s harp and thus obscuring one of her defining qualities. The kicker is “Sawdust & Diamonds,” ?the only piece with Newsom alone, ?and the best track on the record. Her playing, beautifully captured by Albini, provides all the tension and release ?the song needs. Single notes outline ?the melody in the first few bars, leading to rapid-fire plucked chords on the verses, the song’s complex structure winding around in bolero fashion ?to a striking climax.
Setting aside the overly fussy production, Ys is an album of great moments that wears and feels claustrophobic over the course of an hour. There’s no respite from Newsom’s voice and words, words, words; she sings constantly, the lyrics running for 23 pages. Never does music alone do the talking. It’s almost as if she knew this album, with its prestigious collaborators and elaborate packaging, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she felt compelled to fill every inch of space. Compromise and limitation — absent here — demand resourcefulness, which can lead to better art.
JOANNA NEWSOM | Ys | Drag City
Newsom performs November 29 at the Malibu Performing Arts Center and November 30 at the El Rey Theatre.