Joanna Newsom’s Ys is an album of mythic proportions, a project too big to fail. Between the audacity of an hour long five song LP, the monumental orchestral stylings of Van Dyke Parks, and the astronomical explorations of Newsom’s lyrics, the album contends with its mythological namesake, the mythical city of Ys on the coast of Brittany, dramatically swallowed by the ocean.
Newsom wrote the album to make sense of a crushingly difficult year in her life. In an interview with Arthur Magazine she said the album contains three specific stories of her own life. Newsom’s lyrics are by no means transparent. In “Emily” she moves from an explanation of meteors, meteorites and meteoroids to humanity’s place in the cosmos.
“Monkey and Bear” is a fable of exploitation in stunning detail where a bear is a woman, is a constellation.
This is all before arriving at “Only Skin” a 17-minute opus which connects the events of Newsom’s year, a song which sends love, betrayal, loss and womanhood up on fire.
Though the lyrical content is all Newsom’s own, the music is an incredible collaborative process. To make your head spin at the list of those involved: the album was produced by Newsom and Van Dyke Parks, recorded by Steve Albini, mixed by Jim O’Rourke, with accompanying orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. The album features vocals by Bill Callahan and Newsom’s sister, Emily. It’s exhilarating to hear the harmony of such disparate traditions as Parks’ orchestral arrangement and accented notes on the jaw harp. Newsom has developed a unique style as a harpist with strong use of polyrhythms, psychedelic folk influence and elements of her classical training. Suffice to say, the orchestra isn’t there because you would be bored with Newsom otherwise. The harp really shines when the orchestra is absent in “Sawdust and Diamonds.”
It would be remiss to talk about Ys without mentioning its phenomenal cover art by Benjamin Vierling. The artist, who has made a name for himself mainly with intricate oil painting covers of metal albums, renders Joanna Newsom surrounded by mysterious symbols of every sort. There’s a cosmia moth (undoubtedly a nod to the eponymous song), a crow holding a cherry, morning glory vines, and a hanging animal skull. Some of these are clear memento mori, others are more mysterious. There’s no discernable historical period, similarly to the album itself which oscillates between war planes and pharisees. Vierling’s style is inspired by the 19th century Nazarene movement of painting, which was itself drawn from the traditions of late Medieval and early Renaissance artists.
In musical style, aesthetic choices, and lyricism, this album stands alone. It could be a mis-match, hodge-podge of an album (with all the fitting descriptions from “Sawdust and Diamonds”), but the disparate elements support and elevate each other, making this a truly iconic record. So rather than a mis-match I like to borrow the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about Shabbat, and describe this record too as a “Castle in Time.”