Joanna Newsom burst onto the music scene with her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender a couple years back and seemed to be one of those artists who was about as divisive as they come. Musically, her harp-accompanied work was a breath of fresh air, while her voice was definitely an acquired taste for most, with a range that varied between soaring beauty, childlike whimsy and even squeaky, over-the-top dramatics. I was a fan of her debut, but there were moments that I definitely felt like her vocal antics overshadowed the music and songwriting itself. In the back of my head, I wondered how much she would charm me if she released a second album that simply took all the things I loved about her sound and got rid of all (or most) of the things that I didn't.
I only had to wait a couple years, because Ys (pronounced "ease") is pretty much a huge step up on all accounts for Newsom. Her songwriting is more assured and astounding, her lyrics are at the same time personal and somewhat otherwordly, while she teamed up with some of the best in the business on other facets. The pedigree is simply top notch, with Van Dyke Parks having contributed string arrangements, Steve Albini sitting behind the recording decks, and Jim O'Rourke adding his hand at production. Meanwhile, Newsom has put together five songs and over fifty-five minutes of music. Her songs twist and turn and rise and fall and strong melody after memorable melody weave their way into your brain while her beguiling harp playing is a step up from her debut as well.
Based on the above, it's probably easy to tell that I love this album, and I'll be the first to admit that I didn't think it would knock me sideways as much as it has. Seeing Newsom in concert just over a week ago (where she, along with a crew of six backing musicians, played the album from start to finish) has only strengthened my opinion of the songs themselves, as they held up under completely different arrangements (no strings in a live environment). With each track averaging over ten minutes in length, it's difficult to really describe the tracks in short statements. "Emily" opens the album quietly, with weaving strings by Parks ducking in and around the building melodies and vocals from Newsom. About a third of the way through, the track spirals upwards with a more playful section before dropping back again and then bursting forth again towards the end. Themes are revisited, and instead of just being gooey backing, the contributions by Parks tug and pull at the harp element, emphasizing it in unique ways while never getting so flowery that they overwhelm.
So it goes for most of the album. "Monkey & Bear" may very well be the most playful sounding track on the release (and for good measure given the lyrical content), with some great woodwind and horn backing that all come together into a percussion-touched finale that's as close at the album gets to rocking out. The middle track "Sawdust & Diamonds" finds Newsom alone on only vocals and harp, and the more open track comes as a nice breather, with some of the most astounding harp playing and vocals that she's has done to date.
If there's a weak point on the album, it's probably the nearly seventeen-minute "Only Skin," which takes a bit longer to get going, but really stuns from just before the halfway point on (including a duet with Bill Callahan during the Appalachian-folk touched final section). That said, it's nitpicking to complain too much, especially given the amount of twists and turns the album takes, and especially given the mystical album closer of "Cosmia." Simply said, Ys is a knockout of an album (with amazing packaging to boot). It's a grand statement from a young artist and easily one of the best albums of the year.