Permission and Obligation
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


It's been said that what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence. Putting aside the interpretation of the maxim that makes it logically true (and treating the must as a must and not as an ought), I think I can disprove it with the following. That is, like Dan Beirne, I can't handle Joanna Newsom's Ys, and yet it's been handling me to such an extent that I have no choice but to address it, despite my inadequacy for the task. I mean, the album is actually forcing me to not pass it over in silence, though, in truth, I cannot speak of it. How could that be, you ask? How could a man who speaks with so much intelligence and authority, at such great length about such a diversity of music from all over the world, finally be at a loss for his usual mots justes? First of all, thank you.

Ys is actually unlike anything you have ever heard. And that includes The Milk-Eyed Mender. Ys displays a compositional ambition the presence, or even promise of which I did not detect in MEM. Each song consists of many, sometimes nonrepeating, parts, each of which is overflowing with musical ideas: a thousand approaches to a single melody, digressions that turn out to be explanations, about-faces that reveal themselves as logical continuations.

Newsom plays harp and sings differently on Ys than she did on her debut. Whereas before, she was content to leave harp errors alone, she now plays perfectly, always in time, always with confident, subtle control of dynamics. And whereas the vocals on MME were highly divisive, too cute and affected for some (though not for me), she has improved by leaps and bounds since then, effectively making a mockery of anyone who has ever argued that she is not a vocal virtuoso. Her flights through pitches are mind-boggling, her grasp of the manipulative capacity of timing is heart-breaking, her range of timbres is immoral: here phlegmatic, there phlegmatic (different sense), now phlegmatic (still different). Also piercing, cutting, delicate, and brash.

The combined effect of these improvements is to make a sound less superficially human than her previous efforts, but more profoundly human than any I have heard from new music in sixteen hundred years.

Joanna Newsom - "Sawdust and Diamonds" (removed by artist request)

The only song on the album that is just Newsom and her harp. There are two other songs on Ys ("Emily" and "Only Skin") that are as good as this one (there are only five songs on the album), but I didn't want to give everything away.

47 seconds into the song, Newsom goes into a quick-plucked harp part that recalls the sublime density of John Fahey or Charles Ives piano songs: the illusion of slowness is created, despite the rapidity of the playing, through a glacial melodic progression. Every four bars, amidst the flurry of notes, Newsom alternates up and down a Major 2nd, and in so doing, makes a convincing case that the Major 2nd is the best interval ever.

Of course, Ys has its antecedents: English folk, Appalachian music, Bjork, and many more. But more than any other music Ys reminds me of an album it sounds nothing like: Astral Weeks. Both albums are sophomore releases, both are revelations about their respective author's strengths, and both are sprawling, perfect realizations of unique, strange, and enigmatic visions.


Mary Townsley - "Young But Growing"

Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could.


Posted by Jordan at September 6, 2006 7:36 PM

Hey I'm a fan of this site but i've never commented but that's not what's important right now.
I wasn't a fan of The Milk-Eyed Mender . . . it was too squeaky for me. I thought I might like Ys better. I was right. This album is going to send me to sleep and wake me up for months at least, maybe years. My favorite is Emily. I can't wait to buy it and actually hold it. I'm not sure I've been this in love for a long time.
Keep on writing stories about pet clouds that really do have to do with these songs, we swear,

Posted by Cara at September 6, 2006 8:17 PM

dan at 14: swish!
dan at 15: schwing!
dan last year: boom goes the dynamite!
dan now: perfect job, jordan.

Posted by dan at September 6, 2006 9:06 PM

music to pluck butterflies apart with ...

Posted by cyril at September 6, 2006 10:10 PM

my first listen was today, and i kept being reminded, in that same strange way, of astral weeks. what that means i can't say. certainly not out loud.

Posted by cody at September 6, 2006 10:40 PM

I have been surviving on a diet of exclusively Ys for a week now. Sometimes I feel that we don't deserve an album like this. Is there any contemporary precedent for music this imaginative, for lyrics so affecting, so otherwordly?

Posted by spelunking down in those caves at September 7, 2006 11:31 AM

I've almost gotten used to critics throwing out In the Aeroplane comparisons at albums that are the least bit dense (and/or have an accordion). But Astral Weeks? That's a whole different beast, and you've now officially piqued my curiosity.

Posted by Mark at September 7, 2006 3:14 PM

removed by artist request?
the music industry is a dirty, despicable business.

Posted by david b at September 7, 2006 4:35 PM

The 'All My Bones' section on 'Only Skin' where Newsom and Bill Callahan swap phrases with a faraway choir of Joannas is everything I wanted Kate Bush's 'Aerial' to be shoehorned into a minute and a half of ravishing sound.
This may be Van Dyke Parks' greatest-ever contribution to music (much as I love 'Surf's Up' and 'Water Wolves').

Posted by Wicker Man at September 7, 2006 6:50 PM

I really, really wanted to like this album (Milkeyed Mender being possibly my favourite musical thing of the last 2 years) and I'm reading all this gushing praise for it in blogs which makes me wonder if something's wrong with me, because I'm just not feeling it at the moment... I find myself either cringing at the tweeness\syrupiness of the VDP arrangements and lyrics (Monkey & Bear), or else actually getting bored as the songs drift onwards and onwards forever (Emily, Only Skin). The only song that feels perfect to me is Sawdust and Diamonds.. Apart from that, I'm just not getting the same emotional feeling as I got from her first record, this one feels like something to be admired and respected but not loved. The story-type lyrics are clever, but there isn't anything that seems to hit home as hard as the best couplets on (for example) Sadie or Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie off TMEM. I really hope it grows on me in time, because I had such high hopes for it. I hope she doesn't feel the need to prove herself as an earth-shattering compositional talent again next time around, I liked her just fine as a pop songwriter, and the simplicity/sparseness of the first album worked to its advantage. (Sorry to be the one spoiling the party - like I said I really wish I liked this album more).

PS - 'artist request'? Did you really get contacted by Joanna to remove the songs? That's cool if she reads your blog.

Posted by Jim at September 10, 2006 3:19 PM

Jim -

1. Joanna didn't contact us directly, no. Her PR firm made her views on mp3s etc known to us.

2. I am not entirely of your view, but I'm certainly closer to your position than to Dan or Jordan's. "Emily" is the song that I almost wrote up for Gramophone - I was feeling it very deeply. And "Only Skin", when I saw it live the second time, seemed for long moments to be the saddest/most beautiful thing I had ever heard. And I like Van Dyke's floral arrangements. BUT, no, the album does not grab me in any way like Milk-Eyed Mender did (or, for that matter, anywhere near the way Astral Weeks does). Like the most recent Final Fantasy record, it takes me away from here, makes me nod and sigh, makes me think and wonder, but it does not feel like it's touching my heart and leaving it ringing. These songs are too wound up and narrative for me to sew my spirit into, at least so far. And that's too bad.

Posted by Sean at September 10, 2006 3:55 PM

To the max, my faithful blue noser - to the maximum allowed!!!!!!!!! (!!!)

Posted by hobo 4000 at September 10, 2006 7:53 PM

After hearing emily for the first time (the live version) i have come to believe over the past months that... maybe the meteorite is the source of the light.

I vow before my life is over that i will see joanna live. Also in that vow, i will include owen palette. Being 17 and in somewhat of an armpit as far as music is concerned, i might have to wait, but it will happen.

Posted by Kevin at October 11, 2006 9:18 AM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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