In 2006, Joanna Newsom’s second full-length album, a five-track enigma whose shortest song is just over seven minutes, made it to the top of most critics’ year-end lists, a surprising feat for a musician coming out from behind years of classical training in the midst of the Internet age, when the web came into its own as a medium, supposedly bringing long-form to a halt: the album is dead; long live the song. The record is dead; long live the mp3. And yet in so many ways, this doesn’t hold true. Ys is one of those ways. The album no one could quite seem to fit their arms around, Ys is cryptic and captivating, antidotal to the future and nostalgic toward the past. Listeners who had been weaned on sites like the Hype Machine liked it; listeners who only used the Internet to check their email liked it. Ys was hard to escape, and with the onslaught of praise came inevitable questions and criticism. Isn’t Ys sort of, over the top? At the very least, isn’t the media frenzy a bit out of line?
The latter was probably true, at least to fans who feel a sickening deja-vu whenever an indie artist is oversaturated, not wanting reminders of the mainstream world, as if each press mention signifies a dimmer photocopy of a once vibrant artist. Sometimes the work is worthy of all the chatter, and over time the work still holds its color. This is true for Ys, and the reason was clear immediately: it’s timeless. Of course, if Newsom had appeared out of nowhere with a Northern Renaissance-style painting of herself enclosing a veritable harp concerto, the effect would have been far more alienating than Ys turned out to be. It is initially digestible because it’s a second album—the coming-of-age story of an already-known musician whose early work is just as dear, if not dearer, to many people’s hearts. Knowing where it comes from in the trajectory of Newsom’s career, Ys is suddenly right at home anywhere.
But who did it come from? Newsom seemed to slip a little farther away from us with Ys, though there were efforts, some seemingly as extensive as the album itself, to get inside the frame of the album cover, to parse the lyrical narratives into statements, points of view, references to reality. What did all the symbols on the cover, surrounding Newsom, really mean? What is a “damnable bell”? Who is “Emily”? Did somebody die? In some circles, this is where PR comes in and puts a hand over the camera lens. Newsom, being an independent musician whose sole aim in life, she says, is to make the best music she can, did the work herself, demurring to outlets including the Wire—preempting prying questions, in some cases—that vague “she”s and “he”s and “you”s would remain that way, probably forever. “Emily” is her sister, and that’s about all we have.
It shouldn’t matter that Ys is an intensely private affair, which Newsom also happened to pore over for years until she thought it ready for public debut. The process involved intensive collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, who scored the orchestral accompaniment on four of the tracks and allegedly permitted Newsom the most scrutiny and editing of his work he’d yet experienced. It shows. The result is something immaculate, yet somehow as raw as Newsom’s previous material. Without knowing the specifics of what inspired the music, the feelings are there: of being bruised, stung and misunderstood; of longing, lust and love. There is a dense, complicated, and sometimes distracting instrumental backdrop to Newsom’s private musings, but it is more often a beautiful one.