I got lucky in the freshman ResLife lottery: my next-door neighbor, Emily Kianka ’13, shares my love for Joanna Newsom. Really, it’s a godsend. If I blast “Sadie” (or “SAY!-DEEEH,” as I like to call it) at ungodly hours on a Monday night, Emily won’t bang on the wall or shout obscenities. She’ll probably sing along.
So when I grabbed my guitar and suggested we work out a few Joanna Newsom renditions for the hell of it, Emily gladly obliged. Maybe we’d play a few WestCo open mics, entertain our hallmates—nothing too serious.
But then something funny happened. Our friends—the same who cringed in horror any time Ms. Newsom’s music wafted within earshot—were strangely receptive, even enthusiastic. “I like the song when you play it,” explained Rachel Schneider ’13, charmed by our modest take on “Peach, Plum, Pear.” Our friends were hearing Newsom’s music detached from the shock of her shrill, unorthodox voice and precious vocalisms. They were hearing her music for what it really is—moving, evocative, captivating, and lyrical. Somehow, they were hearing the music for the first time.
Here’s a hypothesis: the average Joanna Newsom fan, on this campus or anywhere, owns and treasures everything she’s released (that’s me); will instantly shell out $30 plus gas money to see her perform (yup); finds something new in “Ys” every time it’s played (no question); and won’t shy away from hyperbolic buzzwords like “genius” or “poet” or “masterpiece” (guilty as charged). The average Newsom-hater, meanwhile, has heard perhaps 30 seconds of a song and can sum up his or her distaste in two words or less: the voice. That dreadful voice. That high, piercing, childlike, infamous voice.
This should come as no surprise. Newsom, a California-based singer, songwriter, and harpist, now sits alongside Björk, Tom Waits, and Captain Beefheart on the list of deeply brilliant recording artists whose endlessly polarizing vocal qualities render them wholly unpalatable to a hugely disproportionate number of newcomers. You only make a first impression once. “She sounds like Lisa Simpson!” some gasp. “Is she a six-year-old girl? A frail old woman? Is this a joke?”
She is none of the above. Newsom’s trembling, inimitable soprano can, I concede, be jarring, but it’s also otherworldly, haunting, and strangely beautiful—qualities of naked emotional fragility that made “The Milk-Eyed Mender” one of the most unique folk albums in recent memory.
And then there was “Ys.” Newsom’s sophomore effort is less an album than an event—majestic, orchestral, unflinchingly theatrical, and wildly ambitious. Where “Milk-Eyed Mender” spoke in vignettes, “Ys” brings us sprawling epics—five of them, in fact, with swelling string arrangements by Van Dyke Park and an average song length of 11 minutes. Some find its massive reach pretentious or forced; I find its ambition entirely sincere. To hear it is simply to marvel at its densely woven verse, its melodic complexity, but also—perhaps most of all—its emotional transcendence. I wasn’t joking when I placed it among my top three albums of the decade. I only wonder if that does it justice.
And I wonder, too, what surprises Feb. 23 will bring. That’s the date on which “Have One On Me,” Newsom’s latest opus, is set to drop, and the artist’s refusal to send out prerelease press copies (thereby avoiding the inevitable Internet leak) has kept its contents closely under wraps. The kicker? “Have One On Me” is a triple album, Newsom’s label confirmed—one disc for every year she’s been away, perhaps—and it clocks in at a staggering two hours, eight minutes, and 10 seconds. I’m excited. More Newsom is better Newsom. And really, it’s about time Emily and I get some new material to add to our repertoire.