Track Review: Joanna Newsom
After allowing ample time for the dust to settle after Joanna Newsom’s 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender”, I think I can safely say that there’s very little middle ground between those who love her and those who hate her. And, from the several times I’ve sat at listened to “Ys”, that middle ground is only going to shrink. The new album is, from a critic’s standpoint, so epic (six tracks, an hour of music, and hundreds of listens worth of subtleties) that the thought of reviewing it terrifies me. And so, until I can overcome the fear of taking on such a daunting project, I’ll stall with a review of the album’s first track, the beautiful “Emily”.
The second longest track on the new album, “Emily” runs for over twelve minutes, during which the music undergoes every change thinkable, jumping from momentous to carefree to weird to beautiful to poetic, all with a grace and effortlessness that makes the song interesting and enjoyable the whole way through. It’s truly an epic track—and though I hate using the word “epic” twice in one review, there’s really nothing else that works quite as well. Newsom’s harp acts as the subtle anchor throughout the song, skipping along while Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements provide stellar dynamics and quirky embellishments. The strings, for the most part, complement Newsom’s own performance very well, though occasionally they grow too concerned with being unconventional and break apart from the song as a whole.
Newsom’s grown up in the last couple years, proof of which can be found all over this track. Though on her debut her voice sometimes sounded more like a gimmick than something to be taken seriously, on “Emily” she sounds as if she knows where her voice belongs best—over an epic (Damn it! Three times!) story-song that gives her room to explore the subtleties of her voice rather than a conventionally formatted pop song that casts her voice into uncomfortable roles. Rest assured, her vocal idiosyncrasies are still alive and well; they simply fit in better with music that’s almost equally as idiosyncratic.
Her lyrics, too, are as charming and poetic as ever, exploring strange metaphors, natural imagery, and storytelling elements and combining them into a mostly indiscernible but nevertheless beautiful whole. Though a single narrative on “Emily” is difficult to distinguish, Newsom comes back twice to a set of lines that could be considered a chorus: “The meteorite / is a source of the light / and the meteor’s just what we see / and the meteorite / is a stone that’s devoid / of the fire that propelled it to thee / and the meteorite’s / just what causes the light / and the meteor’s how its perceives / and the meteorite’s a bone thrown / from the boy that lies quiet and offering to thee.” Which, I think, speaks for itself.
“Emily” is a powerful song with layers of depth that, after several close listens, I’ve only touched upon, and a track that promises to yield treasures for some time to come. This is Newsom as Newsom ought to be—majestic, emotional, strange, gorgeous, overwhelming—and you can either take her or leave her right there. Me, I’m taking her.
- Dominick Duhamel -
Tags: Joanna Newsom, psych folk, Ys, Emily, mp3