#1

November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

What an amazing surprise is was to have Ys come along and make an album as accomplished as The Milk-Eyed Mender resemble a developmental step. There’s really no denying that in the two years between her first and second releases, Newsom grew as a Joanna Newsom - Ysmusician by leaps and bounds, and the result of her artistic growth was an album of newfound maturity offset by a familiar flair for creative whimsy. Newsom strengthened all of her minor weaknesses, sharpened her songwriting (it speaks volumes that this is an album of lengthy, vocally driven tracks, which never drags for a moment), and yet still maintained all of her rustic charm, including that marvellous (and divisive!) voice which, despite considerable refinement, has kept all of its precious squawks and lilting inflections firmly intact. Memorable moments pop up regularly throughout the album’s five tracks, as perfectly timed key-changes, subtle style-shifts, glorious crescendos and sentimental vocal turns – the “Why the long face?” interlude on “Sawdust and Diamonds”, the “Be a Woman” segment on “Only Skin” and everything from “Squint skywards and listen” onwards at the end of “Emily” being personal favourites – sweep the listener away time and again. Producer Jim O’Rourke, engineer Steve Albini and composer Van Dyke Parks make valuable behind-the-scenes contributions, and Bill Callahan provides some great backing vocals on “Only Skin”, but this is undeniably Newsom’s album. No matter how the songs are dressed up, they always come back to her exquisite vocals, tender harp playing and enticing storytelling. To me, one of the greatest reasons for Ys success is that its five tracks all have such distinct, individual identities. Even with the album tying together perfectly – and it truly does – it also feels like a series of self-contained “movements”, each with a character all of its own and, more importantly, a listener-response all of its own. The allegorical story-song “Monkey and Bear”,  which sees the titular characters break away from their oppressive confines only the have the former exploit the latter for personal gain, stands out for its juxtaposed midday-matinée strings and nursery-rhyme style; “Sawdust and Diamonds” is unique via its stripped back production – it being the only track sans-orchestra – contrasting it sharply against the lush and elaborate backings of the other tracks; “Cosima” is perhaps the albums most overtly “pretty” track, serving its role as a sleepy, lullaby of a closer, much as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” did on the album’s predecessor; “Only Skin” is memorable for its huge runtime and multi-part structure, which incorporates several distinct passages of song which could all have been great individual tracks in their own right; and finally, there’s “Emily”, Ys‘ opening track, which stands apart simply for being one of the most completely beautiful songs I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I can begin to sufficiently describe the effect this song has had on me, so I’ll just say this – there are very few songs in existence that have actually made me stop and wonder if I had discovered my new, singular favourite song of all time, and this is one of them. I’d pick it in a heartbeat as my number one song of the decade, just as I’m picking Ys as my number one album. Absolutely magical.