November 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
singer/songwriter, folk

The very first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard, which was way back in the good old days of 2005, was a rather unconventional five-minute ode to a pet dog by the name of “Sadie”. While it took a few listens before I got the hang of her vocal style (honestly, “Sadie” is probably one of the more challenging entry points to her oeuvre), the vivid lyricism, exquisite harp-playing and heartfelt, sentimental delivery took little time to reach me. Several years later “Sadie” remains my favourite song on Newsom’s debut, and when she gently coos “and all that we know is blowin’ like tumbleweed” and her voice trills up high on the work “blowin'” – that bit makes me swoon. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of such spellbinding tracks, each of which is home to plenty of little fell-good moments such as the one mentioned above. There’s the sleepy beauty of tracks like “The Sprout and the Bean” (who doesn’t love the way she phrases “are y’interested?” to make it rhyme with “break some bread”?), “Cassiopeia” (I think that “and I swim sweetly as a herring through the ether not despairing” is one of the loveliest lyrics on the album), “Bridges and Balloons” (the word-structure behind “a thimble’s worth of milky moon can touch hearts larger than a thimble” is very special) and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (“your skin is something that I stir into my tea” evokes some incredible imagery). These are balanced out by the small handful of more powerfully delivered cuts like “Inflammatory Writ” and “Three Little Babies”, a couple of no-frills, piano-led belters that see Newsom at her most fearlessly forthright, and “Peach, Plum, Pear”, with its almost overwhelming, “army of Newsoms” multi-tracked vocal. There’s a gentle, old-timey magic in her songs that sees her constantly being aligned with fairies, dragons and other fantasy tropes, but such Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Menderknee-jerk comparisons are ignorant and completely miss the earthy sincerity that’s present in every track (contrary to popular belief, many of these songs are about actual, real-life things), not to mention the sly humour to be found – would ye-olde hippy elf really sing “I killed my dinner … with karate“, as Newsom does in “The Book of Right On’s” disarming opening lines? Even if her songs present the lyrical knottiness and colourful metaphor of a creative writer – an aspect which is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly delightful – everything she sings still rings with honesty and life experience. Newsom really sprung out of nowhere with this release – it stands as an exquisite debut by an artist who truly is one of a kind.



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