In a Word, Ys
Joanna Newsom Lets Her Freak Folk Flag Fly

I knew I shouldn’t have called Nellie McKay weird. Next to this week’s contestant, Joanna Newsom, Nellie McKay is as normal as Nelly Furtado.

Newsom is… well, let’s put it this way. Every once in a while, you find an artist with a sound so completely their own that you just know they will never have any imitators. Pop culture impact is often measured in influence – how many other bands try to sound like yours? The Clash, for example, are one of the most influential bands that ever walked the earth, and the reason is twofold: they came up with a new sound, and that sound was easy to replicate and build on.

But then there are those artists who sound so much like no one else that no one else could ever sound like them, if that makes sense. Bjork is a good example – her mix of techno-savvy, pop classicism and orchestral grandeur would be enough, but then there’s that voice, towering above (and sometimes overpowering) everything else. She’s an original, in both the best and worst way.

The same can be said of Newsom, who came into the world kicking and coughing with a little record called The Milk-Eyed Mender. It’s an innocent, childlike album, featuring little else but Newsom and her harp. That’s right, her harp. The songs on Mender are melodic and folky, with sparkles of stardust, but to appreciate them, you have to get past her voice, which often sounds like that of an intoxicated child. Newsom has complete confidence in her elfin, yet powerful vocals, and they manage to be simultaneously unrestrained and paper-thin.

For all of that, The Milk-Eyed Mender is a little album, with lovely little songs. Her sophomore effort, out this week, is defiantly not little. The only thing small about it is its title, Ys, which is pronounced “ees,” and which means… who the hell knows. Everything else about the album, though, is massive, ambitious, monolithic – essentially the recipe for a disastrous sophomore slump, and the sign of an artist who suddenly has more money and control over her own work than she should.

Except it’s not a slump, and Newsom seems to have exactly the right amount of control over this monster. I don’t know how she alchemized all the elements she used here. In fact, I’ll list them, and you tell me if you can hear in your head how it would come together, because I sure couldn’t.

First, Newsom wrote five long, complicated, progressive-folk songs. The shortest of them is more than seven minutes, and the longest weighs in at 16:53. She then took her harp and her songs to producer (sorry, recorder) Steve Albini. This is a guy whose most commercial-sounding production ever was Nirvana’s In Utero. His usual fare is raw and untouched – he has the uncanny knack of making shitty-sounding bands sound even worse, in the pursuit of “honesty.”

So the guy who ruined PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me recorded the harp and vocals on these songs, and then Newsom took those tracks to Van Dyke Parks, best known as Brian Wilson’s collaborator on SMiLE, to add some strings. Let me just emphasize how weird it is to see Albini’s name right above Parks’ on the same project. So Van Dyke wrote some arrangements for full orchestra, conducted and recorded them, and then, even weirder, sent the whole mess to Jim O’Rourke, erstwhile member of Sonic Youth and Wilco, to mix together into a record.

The result? Well, the best I can come up with is that Ys sounds like 1970s prog-folk played on 16th Century instruments and then sung by a drunk 10-year-old. And if that doesn’t sound magically appealing, then I’m telling it wrong.

To be honest, I expected an unlistenable mess. What I got is a delirious wonderland, a swirly-sky journey through perhaps the most singular, idiosyncratic talent I’ve encountered in years. On paper, it sounds impenetrable, but as it’s blissfully wafting from your speakers, spreading little sprinkles of fairy dust as it rises, it sounds amazing.

Speaking of on paper, you have to have a gander at some of these lyrics. The record plays like a stream of consciousness, and reads like free-verse poetry. Little of it makes logical sense, but all of it makes emotional sense, if you know what I mean. And it’s stuffed with words you normally wouldn’t find in any kind of music, like “inchoate” and “lissome” and “hay-monger.” Here, look, it’s like this:

“Awful atoll
O, incalculable indiscreetness and sorrow!
Bawl, bellow:
Sybil sea-cow, all done up in a bow,
Toddle and roll;
teethe an impalpable bit of leather,
while yarrow, heather and hollycock
awkwardly molt along the shore.
Are you mine?
My heart?
Mine anymore?”

All punctuation and capitalization preserved from the lyric sheet, of course. I don’t mean to imply that these lyrics don’t work, but that they are tongue-twisting tales leagues beyond the average pop lyric, and merely reading the liner notes, you’ll probably wonder just what kind of music fits these words. It is a testament to Newsom’s skill that the songs themselves never sound cluttered or overstuffed.

But back to the sound itself. Albini actually did the reverse of what I expected – he smoothed out Newsom’s voice. Together, the two of them have figured out how to use her maddening, magnificent voice as a true instrument, carrying the melody and adding just enough character. The full orchestral arrangements certainly help, framing her babe-in-the-woods squeak with Fantasia-like grandeur. But the 10-minute “Sawdust and Diamonds” is all Newsom and her harp, and even there, she seems more controlled, more aware of her abilities and limitations.

Her songwriting appears to have no such limitations. Opener “Emily” incorporates half a dozen dramatic shifts and at least as many memorable melodies over its 12 minutes, and astoundingly turns an epic poem into a delightfully memorable piece. When you can get a 12-minute song stuck in your head, that’s something special. “Only Skin,” the phenomenal 16:53 piece referenced above, earns every second of that running time, and here Van Dyke Parks stands out with a spectacular string arrangement that will knock you over if you’re not careful.

But strangely, it’s something called “Monkey and Bear” that takes the top prize. It’s a 10-minute programmatic exploration of society in allegory form, and it starts as a fairy tale, but ends with an extraordinary chanted segment that will set your hair on end. Surprisingly, the strings take a back seat during this movement, leaving Newsom to kick up a storm on center stage by herself, and she does so brilliantly.

Ys sputters to a close with “Cosmia,” the clunkiest and shortest thing here, but even that misstep can’t derail this spellbinding album. And that one ends beautifully, Newsom stepping out of her comfortable range to wail desperately at its climax, in plain, gorgeous language. “And I miss your precious heart,” she cries, and you can hear the longing bursting from her.

Somehow, Newsom made everything work, and she’s ended up with a second record that no one could have expected. You cannot judge Ys as pop music, or as folk music, or as pretty much anything else – it is its own thing. It will undoubtedly be a divisive work among those few who actually hear it, and my bet is people will either reach for the stop button before the first track ends, or they will fall in desperate, maddening love with it. Something this bold leaves no middle ground.

Me, I love it. I’ve found it difficult, if not impossible, to listen to anything else over the past week. But it’s hard for me to recommend it, since I know that those who dislike it will violently dislike it. However, those who love it will absolutely, without reservation, love it like their own child. It’s that kind of album. It’s difficult to rank something this singular against anything else out there, since its goals and accomplishments are so different from virtually any other record I’ve heard this year. But in every way I can think of, Ys is one of the best (and oddest, and weirdest, and most bizarre) albums of 2006.

Next week, some pretty, pretty noise.

See you in line Tuesday morning.