A Marvelous Passage from Sir Thomas Browne
Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2007

Music of the Week — September 23, 2007

Joanna Newsom: Ys

It appears that hippies still walk the earth. Not just the survivors of that long-ago age, the often rather dazed-seeming geezers and grannies who show up at rock concerts and political demonstrations, but young people who seem to have adopted the sensibility and the style of a certain element of the ‘60s (without, one hopes, the self- and socially-destructive behavior that went along with it). I say “adopted” but perhaps it should be “reinvented”—maybe this is a perennial expression of an attractive sort of bohemianism rather than a conscious imitation or attempt to revive the movement.

At any rate, here’s an example, which might be described as The Incredible String Band meets Victoria Williams. With the invocation of those names you can figure the word “quirky” is probably going to make an appearance, and indeed it’s a hard one to avoid, tiresome though it may be, when speaking of Joanna Newsom. A quick way to get an idea of what her music is like is to look at the cover art:

If that doesn’t say “hippie girl” to you then you’ve never seen a real one.

I would expect most people to find Ys a love-it-or-hate-it thing: either you’ll find it mannered and affected and possibly unlistenable, or enchanting. I’m firmly in the second camp, more so every time I hear it; I think it’s wonderful, but it’s definitely not for everybody. Its five songs range from just over seven to almost seventeen minutes in length, each an unbroken cascade of long melody lines, complex lyrics, and very…umm…unusual singing. Newsom’s voice has been called child-like but if that’s true it’s a somewhat peculiar child. I would describe it rather as a little girl trying to sound like a grownup (or should it be the other way around?), but that’s only one mode of her style, which is full of unexpected timbres. There are no purely instrumental interludes. The arrangements consist of Newsom’s own harp and orchestrations by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. There’s no trace of rock-and-roll here at all, which, I’ll note in passing, points out the futility of trying to generalize about the state of contemporary (or for that matter post-‘60s) popular music.

Like the best of the Incredible String Band’s work, this is music which takes you into its own strange and fascinating world, restlessly inventive both musically and lyrically, jumping back and forth between the mundane and the mystical, the personal and the cosmic, the playful and the serious. Newsom spent some time studying creative writing, and it shows, but in a good way: not in the sense that she sounds like a veteran of too many workshops, but in that she obviously puts a lot of care into her use of words (including what I’m guessing is the only know instance of rhyming “amen” and “hollerin’”).

Squint skyward and listen:
loving him,
we move within his borders,
just asterisms
in the stars’ set order.

We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight
at this thing: joy.
in bodies that don’t keep,
with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.
Told: take this
and eat this.


The line breaks and punctuation are my attempt to represent the rhyme and rhythm as well as the sense of the lyric. I had to look up “asterism”; it’s actually the perfect word here.

The “Y” in Ys, by the way, is apparently pronounced “ee,” since Newsom has released an EP called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band. No, I don’t know what Ys means, or whether it should rhyme with “ease” or “grease” (the noun—and why are those two words pronounced differently anyway?).

Here’s a YouTube clip which combines an interview with a bit of a performance (young single men should approach with caution, as it may be a romantic hazard). Here’s another which is a partial performance of “Emily.” The sound quality is poor, the performance a bit unsteady, and the arrangements are reduced to harp, guitar, and something which looks and sounds like an overgrown mandolin. But between these two you should be able to get an idea of whether you want to hear more.

Update: It just occurred to me to see if there is an entry for Ys in Wikipedia. There is. Maybe you already knew this.



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