In a sense, the creation of some music albums can be viewed as the creation of artifacts, like a precipitate left after a chemical reaction. In the case of Joanna Newsom’s Ys, the songs are artifacts of events that she experienced over the course of a year. Listening to it, I begin to think that perhaps the lengthy nature of the songs is an attempt to take the microscopically small moments we experience and stretch them into a more tangible form. The moments we realize we are looking at something beautiful and mysterious — and the mornings we wake up and realize we are in love — are all moments that come, go, and change something inside of us. To me, Newsom has managed to capture the magical wonder that comes with such times. She has crafted what most of us are incapable of creating in our lives: a firm, finite representation of possibly infinite feelings and transformations that she has experienced. She is offering us proof of these occurrences.
The sound of the album is quite unlike anything else out today. Newsom is a classically trained harpist, and has a versatile, unique voice. This album also sounds different from her debut because she chose to embellish most of the songs with an orchestra, as well as an accordion and other sounds. The orchestrations were penned by Van Dyke Parks, who worked with Brian Wilson on both the 1966 and 2004 Smile album sessions. In terms of recording, the album was engineered by Steve Albini and produced by Jim O’Rourke, two unimaginably colossal gods in the music world. Albini has recorded bands like Low, Nirvana, and Slint, while O’Rourke made Sonic Youth good again a few years back and released solo work that spans the rock, experimental, and electronic genres. In short, an overwhelming mountain of talent has come together to make this record — and it sounds minimal! The instrumentation is gentle, the production transparent; Newsom’s voice is always at the center of your attention. It was a relief for me to hear the album and notice that Newsom retained complete control over the sound despite collaborations with industry superstars who overshadow her in experience.
In relation to her debut, The Milk Eyed Mender, Ys is a more epic affair and, in a way, represents everything a strong sophomore album (something that almost no band can achieve these days) should be: more adventurous, personal, and exciting, while retaining the musical elements that made the first such a fascinating debut — the minimal setting of harp and voice.
David Hartunian | Special to The Tartan