Joanna Newsom - Ys

For those that are ready and willing to put the work in, Ys has a capacity for rewards aplenty.

Album Review by Ally Brown | 11 Jan 2007
Album title: Ys
Artist: Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is a classically-trained Canadian harpist who gained a little public attention and a lot of critical love in 2004 with her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, a sweet demonstration of the graceful beauty that can be plucked from this instrument, rarely-heard in contemporary popular music. Her follow-up Ys (pronounced "eess"), has caused waves of blogospheric debate over its virtues and vices. It's an album that demands to be analysed and explained closely in a review, such is the arguments it throws up, both within the music community and within the individual listener. One's first impressions could easily be hateful to the point of violence.

On first impulse: Joanna Newsom, little fucking Lisa Simpson that she is, prissy drama student, medium-of-dance thespian, so precious, so pretentious, so oh-so bloody perfect. Ys is vile- those vocal affectations, the purposefully fey warbling, the indecipherable lyrics, "scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?" she squeaks like some whining gerbil. What does that mean? Then there are the string arrangements that bear little relation to the glittery harp wankery, and this all goes on for up to 16 minutes at a time, all over the place, in between breaks. The best thing about Ys are the breaks - the silences in-between these horrible, hateful songs.

Fortunately, music is not best suited to being conclusively analysed on first exposure, though it often is. No doubt Ys is very easy and tempting to dismiss as pretentious twaddle after one casual listen. So the first conclusion to be drawn is not to listen to Ys at all unless you can commit to listening to it at least half-a-dozen times, all the way through, by yourself. Ys is certainly more suited to a bubble-bath-and-a-flake setting than it is to any communal occasion where its intimacy would be necessarily diluted. Secondly, Ys demands more than just your spare ear time - it also requires you to have a mind open to challenging music of a like you may not be used to. It's difficult to recommend this album to anyone who sticks rigidly to post-punk indie, or contemporary r&b, or techno-heads - it's complex orchestration and varying time signatures make it far more analogous to classical music than much of modern 'pop'. Ys' final insistence is a degree of concentration - the 15-minute stories unfold in complex ways that can't be followed casually - better to read the lyric book alongside listening. If you feel you can meet all these requirements, what does Ys offer in exchange?

For those that are ready and willing to put the work in, Ys has a capacity for rewards aplenty. Newsom's voice is an acquired taste, but it soon reveals an emotional authenticity that can be breathtaking, and her careful lyrical articulation assists in understanding, on some level, the beautifully imagined stories she tells - helped even more so, as mentioned, by reading the booklet. What's more, the relationship between the ducking, weaving orchestration - arranged by Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson's collaborator on SMiLE - and Newsom's harp and vocals takes further shape upon each listen, each time revealing new insights into each track. Ys contains only 5 ever-shifting songs, but after a dozen listens each track contains a dozen little epiphanic moments. These are the pay-offs that allow the conclusion that Ys is a truly exceptional album, one of the most intellectually impressive and emotionally engaging in recent memory. It really won't suit everyone, and for that inaccessibility it cannot receive a 5-Skinny rating. But for those that can bear to appease its demands, Ys is a very real injury-time contender for Album of 2006. [Ally Brown]

Joanna Newsom plays Glasgow City Hall (Candleriggs) on 14 Jan