Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Dumbstruck, with the sweetness of being" — Joanna Newsom's "Ys" Turns 10

Some musings on Joanna Newsom's Ys (which turns 10 later this week) after the jump:

I finally had the chance to see Joanna Newsom play live last year, in support of her (amazing) 2015 album Divers. It was a stunning, career-spanning set in all respects, but the high point—and the moment that vaulted it into being among my favorite concert experiences ever—arrived two songs from the end, when she came out on stage alone to start the encore. The lack of accompaniment sort of tipped me off as to what might be coming—a song I'd been hoping against hope to hear, but one that she'd only performed a few times on this tour. She then told a story of a fan who came up to her after a previous show to request the song (many thanks to this person), and then she plucked out the first chord on the harp and sang: "From the top of the flight / Of the wide white stairs / For the rest of my life / Do you wait for me there?" As I'm in the habit of telling people, I don't smile on cue for photos very well. But I feel like if you'd taken a photograph of my expression at that exact point in time, I'd have been wearing a big old grin of pure joy.

That song is "Sawdust & Diamonds," the centerpiece of Ys, and probably my pick for the greatest song ever written. What's its main competition for that title? Well, that'd be "Emily," the album's 12-minute-long opening track—an astonishing ode to sisterhood, growing up, and a whole lot of other things that manages the neat trick of combining lyrical grandness with moments of almost impossibly deep feeling. Try, if you will, to imagine this 15-year-old—raised on great but far less elaborate three-minute oldies radio anthems—hearing this music for the first time. My first impression was one of pure awe; here's this songwriter using words I've never heard of before, or else twisting familiar language into new passages and rhymes that are dazzling in their descriptiveness and poetry. And even though I had very little clue what the song was even about at this point, as it continued to spin its narrative, something happened. The initial awe persisted, but I started to also pick up on the emotion in particular passages. I began to hear some aspects of the emotional transformation that Newsom explores over the course of the song, culminating in her description of being "dumbstruck with the sweetness of being / Till we don't be"—a stirring command to savor life, despite the encroaching reality of our bodies' eventual decaying.

As a person who, even then, tended to suffer frequent bouts of anxiety regarding his own mortality, let's just say this line resonated with me immediately. It also told me right then and there that this was going to be music I wanted to get to know better. And as I listened to "Emily" over and over later on, these lyrics took on all kinds of new dimensions in the context of the larger song, particularly once several other lyrics about the cosmos and other elements of the natural world began to sink in. It wasn't until much later, for instance, that I realized that every song on Ys includes water as a significant element, representing all sorts of feelings and themes. On "Emily," the descriptions of the boats that "shear the water from the water" to me evoke the sense of a young woman only starting to make sense of the world and her place within it. They form a heartbreaking contrast with the "lonely nights down by the river" Newsom relates in "Cosmia," a song that is among the most gutting portraits of grief ever committed to audio. This is the furthest thing from a concept record in the traditional sense, but it draws so many subtle connections between its songs that give it a remarkable sense of unity.

"Monkey & Bear" follows. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, it's probably the most instantly accessible and inviting track on Ys. I always like to think of it as a song you could almost imagine Bob Dylan writing in another life. Not quite; there's still so much about it that marks it as a Newsom song through and through. But it finds that same balance between concrete narrative detail and dream/nightmare imagery that so many of Dylan's best songs also achieve. It's also the only song here that has an entirely linear progression, because it is after all a sort of twisted fairy tale—monkey meets bear, monkey convinces bear to run away together, monkey psychologically abuses bear and makes her dance to gain the money they need to survive, and bear meets tragic fate. (At least I think it's tragic. I must confess I've never been quite clear on whether bear simply dies or undergoes some sort of moment of transcendence. Perhaps it's both. But I sure read it as tragic. Certainly much of the song is, at any rate.)

Newsom proceeds to layer this already dark tale with so much brilliantly conjured imagery and psychological complexity—plus the truly jaw-dropping rhyme of "monkey" with "spelunking"—that it's rewarded the many hundreds of listens I've given it since. But it's also a song that I was able to wrap my head around much more quickly, thanks in large part to the hypnotic sway of the music—especially those sections where Newsom shifts from her detailed travelogue of farmers, barnyards, organ-grinders, and more to delve into the heart of the monkey's emotional hold over his companion. "Oh darlin'," she sings as the monkey, repeating the words as a motif. "Come on, will you dance, my darlin'?" Each repetition comes with a new set of future promises, such as hills "groaning with excess" and a place where he tells his darlin' she can finally "bare your teeth." There's unmistakable menace in these seemingly innocuous words—menace given life by Newsom's command of melody and Van Dyke Parks' string arrangements, which swoop in, almost in the style of a horror movie score, during these sections as if to foreshadow the song's end. As a piece of long-form musical storytelling grounded in specific detail, it's nearly peerless outside of the realm of musical theatre.

Then there's the aforementioned "Sawdust," the one track that does not make use of Parks' evocative strings at all. It's simply Newsom, spinning an intimate tale that—like any number of her songs—can probably interpreted a dozen different ways. To me, it sounds like the song's narrator is recalling a past love affair as though it were yesterday. If "Emily" and "Monkey & Bear" strike me as being about exploration, then "Sawdust" is the moment where Newsom shifts to reflecting upon an earlier, freer time in life from a position of hindsight. The details are specific and, at times, highly erotic: "And the articulation in our elbows and knees makes us buckle / And we couple, in endless increase as the audience admires." Another brilliant passage describes a "little white dove / made with love, made with love" as a possible metaphor for physical intimacy; at least, that's how I've come to view it after attempting to parse through the layers of finely-crafted metaphor. Regardless, the unadorned harp befits a song that seems to flow and weave like a memory; the strings are an essential complement to the rest of the songs, but not here. They'd ruin the spell.

They're back with a vengeance on "Only Skin," a song which continues "Sawdust's" reflective mood but marries it with a more overtly epic, widescreen type of songwriting. The first few lines evoke a war movie better than most war movies do, vividly painting a scene of death, destruction, and terror. "And there was a booming above you, that night / Black airplanes flew over the sea," she sings to start us off, setting the tone for a track in which mortality—already a key component of Ys—figures even more prominently. Newsom's awareness of the limits of physical bodies does not confine itself to death, either; she paints portraits of injuries and sickness with equal power, often using seemingly digressive episodes about animals to further this inquiry into how humans relate to the cruelty of the natural world. She turns the casual act of a person tossing a spider down a drain, for instance, into something almost gothic. And later, she offers a beautiful moment of hope and rebirth courtesy a description of an apparently dead bird that rises to fly anew. It's among the most moving moments I've ever experienced from a piece of art in any medium.

And then there's "Cosmia," a song that is completely and explicitly about death and mourning. While I've appreciated the staggering craftsmanship that went into it for years, my relationship to this particular song changed when I experienced the loss of someone I knew for years and cared deeply about. What Joanna Newsom does with this track is essentially explore the whole gamut of emotions I felt at that moment and in the days after, from the feelings of futility in the face of death ("But though I tried so hard, my little darlin' / I could not keep the night from coming in") to the aching realization that the only way you'll ever see this person again is if there's an afterlife of some kind. I don't personally believe in such a thing, and I don't really know what Joanna Newsom believes, either. But what I do think she captures here—better than perhaps any songwriter ever has—is that hope that maybe, someday, a cosmic sort of reunion may be possible, as well as the fear that perhaps it is not. For all the song's looks to the heavens, its final words reflect a chasm of loss—its heroine missing her loved one's "precious heart" as it's released to wherever (if anywhere) it goes next, and repeating these words again and again as if to try to make some sort of further sense of them.

I find myself doing this to every word and passage in Ys from time to time. I've written about it here partially as an album of maturation—which is part of what made it such a special album to discover exactly when I did—but that's certainly not all it is. I've listened to it probably at least once every other month (and often many more times) in the seven years and change since, and it morphs. Every time I press play, I hear something new. I certainly relate more to "Cosmia" now than I did a few years ago, and perhaps I relate a tad less to "Emily." Other times I put aside the question of meaning altogether and simply let some of the imagery wash over me—the sky in "Only Skin" as breaking bread throwing "bricks of wet smoke" at some nameless soul is a particular favorite. Newsom is at her lyrical peak here; as fond as I am of her other records, this remains her career benchmark. I feel as though some part of her probably knows it, as she's moved toward a more concise—albeit still wonderfully dense and thought-provoking—style of songwriting in the years since. The songs on Ys are a once in a lifetime achievement, for composer and listener alike. I know, with about as much confidence as I know just about anything, that I'll never love another album quite as much.

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