Joanna Newsom objects mightily to characterizations of her music as “childlike,” and many of those who have described it as such are probably missing the point. It’s not that the singer herself — naive delivery and song titles like “Bridges and Balloons” aside — is posing as a wide-eyed innocent. It’s that she’s asking you, the listener, to respond as a child might: credulously, without irony, listening and absorbing even before you understand. “Ys” (pronounced “ees”), her second album, is never facile or silly or cute. But it does inspire a sense of wonder — and if that means there’s something “childlike” in the experience of “Ys,” then Newsom should wear the label with pride.
“Ys” is the follow-up to Newsom’s 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” With that album, Newsom asserted that she was going to yowl poetry and play the harp — and that if anyone thought that was weird, then it was too damn bad for them. As good as “The Milk-Eyed Mender” was, what impressed the listener most was the simple fact of its existence: a freak-folk record by a cat-voiced classical harpist? It was riveting. Newsom’s artistry was no gimmick, but it took some getting used to — and with that out of the way, “Ys” finds her free to explore the artistic possibilities of yowling and harping.
There are several obvious differences between “Ys” and its predecessor. First, while “The Milk-Eyed Mender” featured 12 songs of normal song-length, “Ys” is comprised of five songs averaging over 10 minutes each. The long tracks feel more like acts or movements than they do typical songs, providing Newsom with ample microcosms in which to play. And the addition of Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks’ orchestration (another departure from the spare “Mender”) heightens the theatrical sensibility introduced by the album’s structure. Accordion, banjo, brass and especially strings are all put to good use, creating an effect that courts drama without falling into schmaltz. The flowing, extended structure of the songs combine with the shadings of orchestration to give “Ys” the feel of a darkly engrossing fairy tale.
Yes, yes: a fairy tale? Sixteen-minute-long songs, painstaking orchestration, an unpronounceable album title: This should be a mine field. But it isn’t, and you’re only aware of that peril upon later reflection — there’s never a moment when, in listening, you have to decide to play along. Newsom compels your trust through sheer talent and her peculiar charisma.
Above all, “Ys” makes you aware of the power of Newsom’s voice — both as a lyricist and, literally, as a singer. On this album, her singing voice has stopped seeming like an acquired taste and has become simply arresting, something that makes you hold your breath as it stumbles and floats. The edges have been somewhat smoothed — there are far fewer of the jarring yelps that punctuated “The Milk-Eyed Mender” — and that shift is in keeping with the texture of the album as a whole. Here, the voice works in service of the music, rather than just announcing the singer’s eccentricity.
On the song “Sawdust & Diamonds,” for example, Newsom repeats the phrase “oh desire” over the urgent ripple of her harp. As the words tumble forth, the effect is powerful and apparently uncontrolled but also somehow precise. Her voice grabs the listener’s attention and refuses to let go — it remains a potent, distinctive instrument, even if it’s no longer so aggressively unrefined.
But Newsom’s lyrics, as much as her otherworldly music, are the core of the album. She writes with an acute sense for the beauty of words, and her care yields moments of heartbreaking lucidity as well as ones of impenetrable mystery. Both results are remarkable. How does she make a love story about a dancing bear so plausible and affecting, as in the song “Monkey & Bear”? And how can she sustain 17 minutes of elliptical ambiguity, as she does on “Only Skin”?
In both cases, Newsom transforms the listener into a rapt five-year-old: enchanted but also baffled, listening without always trying to decipher, hearing words and music for the way can sound and feel, the way they can lodge in your mind.