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.
Listeners of Ys came for the beauty, but stayed for the emotional content. We did as Newsom did with the myth of Ys and took the album as our own, throwing our own experiences and conjectures onto the songs. It's possible to relate to simple, digestible lines like, "Oh, desire," from "Sawdust and Diamonds," and the way Newsom sings it doesn't hurt. Even the more bizarre crux of the song—the firm insistence that "I wasn't born from a whistle/or milked from a thistle at twilight" is relatable: buried in those lines is a meaning that makes sense to us. But just try to articulate it in words. The experience really isn't that far off from hearing a foreign language: we catch familiar sounds and are drawn in to thinking we understand by universal inflections. But it's hard to spell out what that line, or any of "Sawdust and Diamonds," is about.
The fun of music is that you don't have to explain in words what you sense in lyric and melody. It's mostly critics who feel compelled to put a finger on what's beneath the sounds. But Newsom won't let us, and in doing so, she reminds us that the musician, even, in her case, with all her years of training and perfectionism, should also be allowed to have fun. She went further than most might think to have it. True, Ys is packed with words she can't get out fast enough, and which we can't grasp the meaning of. To skeptics, this might come off seeming like a budding poet who hasn't yet honed editing skills. But if the album sounds to you like a riotous banquet of words, that's actually one interpretation Newsom probably wouldn't correct.
Newsom told the Wire that "decadence," a big element in the myth of Ys, "figures very prominently" on the album. "Either the idea of decadence, or I guess a searching or longing or wondering that is rooted in a desire for any self-gratification, selfishness, self-centeredness, which is a sort of decadence I guess. I try to convey that by using language which places as the goal this over the top thing, you know, like fiefs and that sort of thing," she explained, then laughed.
The album itself is "this over the top thing." But drawn out at varying speeds over about an hour, the challenges of Ys—its reputation, swathed in awe, curiosity and frustrations about paganism, ornateness, maximalism—are dismantled through listening. Newsom demonstrates virtuosity in a language that nobody—not even she—fully understands, as if to remind us that music isn't burdened by the same obligations as people, and shouldn't be persuaded to be.
Haha.. we were kidding about all those other ones. This is obviously, objectively, the best record
ever of the decade.
Dec 23, 2009
Breakup records should not be this good.
Dec 23, 2009
After five years and three albums spent building something, Wilco decided to tear it down and start fresh. The music industry did the same thing. But it didn't exactly have a choice.
Dec 22, 2009
With just ten songs, Arcade Fire successfully mourned the loss of multiple relatives, helped us discover a new way of dealing with adversity, and changed the face of indie-rock.
Dec 21, 2009
With the music industry in a perpetual downward spiral for much of the decade, it became difficult to blame bands for licensing their songs to corporations. When the money paid for records as brilliant as this one, it was impossible.
Dec 18, 2009