My friend Philip recently coined the rock sniglet “anachro-pop” to refer to the bevy of recent indie bands who whimsically court nostalgia for ages that may or may not have existed. For example: the Dresden Dolls and German cabaret, the Decemberists and Victorian sea shanties, the Ditty Bops and Prohibition-era jazz, Faun Fables and medieval paganism. The balance between irony and sincerity takes great care, and these bands dare you to not take them seriously, staying in character and sometimes testing your patience like a dedicated fan of Vampire: The Masquerade. Yes, I enjoy most of these bands and I respect the literariness of grad-students-cum-frontmen like Colin Meloy, but all in all, it’s hard for me to get genuinely excited about a rock album that demands an awareness of Frederic Jameson’s concepts of parody and pastiche in order to “get it.” I’d rather listen to the Gin Blossoms.
So here comes Joanna Newsom’s Ys, a collaboration between Newsom and Van Dyke Parks, the pop demi-god who helped Brian Wilson come up with Smile: the album art is painted in the pre-Raphaelite style, the title refers to a mythical city of Celtic yore, the liner notes are laid out in Middle English script with Bible-like gold lining around the pages, and the lyrics are filled with pastoral imagery and words like “fain” and “rote.” The potential for Medieval Times-scale goofiness is limitless, and as much as I loved Newsom’s Milk Eyed Mender, I braced myself for the treacly, obsolescent worst (i.e. something resembling Faun Fables). But Ys is probably the most extraordinary album of the year.
Newsom recorded “base” vocal and harp tracks with Steve Albini, and then spent six months developing backing orchestral arrangements with Parks. The effect is outstanding and operatic and, thanks to the astute mixing work of Jim O’Rourke, the orchestral parts never feel tacked on or unnecessary. The dozens of strings and winds float in and out of the mix, truly accentuating Newsom’s compositions, without overwhelming her signature voice. Of course, there’s not a symphony in the world that could overwhelm Newsom’s voice. Her vocals have been compared favorably and otherwise to Björk, Kate Bush, and Lisa Simpson, but these comparisons are inadequate, as is the rather blasé assessment that Newsom’s voice will “grow on you.” She is the most innovative vocalist since Tom Waits, and like Waits she is capable of soothing dissonance.
Lyrically, Newsom’s talents are just as startling: she wraps her alto around tongue twisters like “Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?” and “The thought troubled the monkey, for he was afraid of spelunking down in those caves” with more grace than you could possibly expect. Newsom’s rhymes bear the wit and curiousness of her anachro-pop peers, but with the profundity they lack. “Monkey And Bear” is a haunting fable as heartbreaking as it is magical. The epic “Only Skin” traces a love affair through a number of allusions and allegories before culminating in a duet with Smog’s Bill Calahan, where Newsom’s speaker pledges her body and soul to her beloved: “Take my bones, I don’t need none.”
Ys might seem like it will be a difficult, even unpleasant, listen: a mere five songs over the course of nearly an hour (“Only Skin” stretches to 17 minutes), an unconventional vocalist most would deem grating, lyrics with a demanding diction, and nary a chorus or verse to be found. But Ys is incredibly likeable, and more convivial than the twee Milk Eyed Mender. The album is a precious—in every sense of the word—masterpiece.