Column: Joanna, I Need Closure
The problem of writing a review of Joanna Newsom’s “Ys” has been dogging me for some time now. I realize it’s already been beat to death in the blogosphere and there’s really very little of any meaning I could add to the enormity of material already out there, but if anything Newsom’s release should be considered “important” and, because of that, I’d feel morally remiss if I didn’t address it. I’ve tried to pass it on to my other writers, but they wouldn’t have it. And so the problem logically falls on my lap. Which brings us here.
Let me stress that I don’t want to write this review (and am not really going to), the main reason being that I have no idea what to say. To be totally honest, I have yet to be able to listen to all of “Ys” in one sitting. Anyone can tell you it’s a challenging listen; but where “Return to Cookie Mountain” yielded immense rewards when the challenge was overcome, I’ve yet to receive such compensation from “Ys”.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s “good”. I can’t say if it’s good or not quite yet. I can say it’s impressive: Van Dyke’s Parks’ string arrangements, Newsom’s ever-expanding harp virtuosity, unique melodies, songs exceeding ten minutes, ambitious and carefully crafted lyrical narratives, and its crisp production are all reason enough in themselves to be taken with “Ys”. Simply put, it deserves our attention. But I’m not so sure that this means it also deserves our praise.
I saw Joanna Newsom live at the El Rey in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, and this only further encouraged my doubt. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the crowd; we were captivated, enamored with that beautiful pixie onstage, plucking away at her harp and bending her mouth around her words. I, as well as everyone around me, was in awe; but when the awe finally left me, the real question still lingered: did I enjoy it? Do I enjoy listening to “Ys”?
On a gut level, listening to the album can be a burden. There are several moments that are truly mind-blowing (the “skipping stones across the surface of the water” part of “Emily”, the chorus of “Monkey & Bear”, some of the harp breaks on “Sawdust & Diamonds”, for example) but, when the average song is eleven minutes long, these moments are few and far between. The more I listen to it, the more I realize what I’m actually experiencing: I’m waiting and waiting for those amazing, standout parts, working my way through the excessively long filler to arrive at the payoff. Were these sections of filler shorter, I’m sure I would like it more; taken in small chunks they’re charming enough, they way they’re pounded into your head over the length of the whole album they lose what makes them special.
But I’m starting to analyze the album, and analyzing without knowing what point you’re going to make in the end is a bad idea. If I don’t know if the album is “good” or “bad”, how can I possibly address its parts in those same terms? But perhaps this dilemma is the more indicative than anything than can be taken directly from the album.
The fact of the matter is (as you’ve probably noticed) I can’t seem to process this album. I don’t know if the filler is good or bad, I can’t tell if the standout parts are an exception or a glorious peak, I can’t tell if the lyrics are meaningful or not, I can’t figure out if Parks’ string arrangements are abrasive or genius—but this inability to process, I realize, is also an inability to connect to “Ys” on a personal level. If I can’t decide how I feel about this album, perhaps it’s because it doesn’t make me feel anything strong enough to sway me. That’s also probably why it feels like such work to listen to “Ys”; because there’s nothing on the album to which I can relate. I can’t possibly claim with any reasonable evidence that the album is “bad”, however. So where does that leave me?
If I can’t connect to the album, and it’s not bad, what is it? I realize in light of other albums I can’t connect to/can’t call bad, that, to put it simply, the album is mediocre. Yes, “Ys” is mediocre, and not because of any part of the album itself. It’s mediocre because it’s so inaccessible, so foreign, so distant from my cognitive capabilities that it will never be more than an album that’s “out there”, existing independent of any previously established set of music rules but also existing independent of everything that allows me to appreciate it.
Joanna Newsom - Emily
Joanna Newsom - Sawdust & Diamonds
- Dominick Duhamel -
Tags: Joanna Newsom, Ys, Emily, Sawdust & Diamonds, mp3