The cover of harpist Joanna Newsom's exhaustingly dense new album, Ys, is an exquisitely detailed allegorical painting in egg tempera that stylistically resembles Kit Williams' 1980 storybook-puzzle Masquerade. Williams had buried a jewel-studded 18-carat gold hare somewhere in the English countryside, and a careful reader could piece together clues that Williams embedded in the text and illustrations to decipher the location of the treasure. Masquerade's cryptic plot involved the moon's ill-fated attempt to send a lovelorn message to the sun, but the book's end offered no resolution, leaving the reader bewildered and, in many cases, frustrated.
As far as we know, Joanna Newsom has not concealed gems and gold in a Northern California stand of live oaks, though the knackering complexities of Ys won't convince listeners otherwise. The singer-songwriter charmed fans with her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, a collection of intimate, idiosyncratic songs, most of them featuring nothing but Newsom's harp and youthful, occasionally squeaky vocals. Her sometimes arcane vocabulary (Newsom could moonlight as an SAT tutor) had listeners reaching for their dictionaries, but no printed guide exists that could crack the code of the sprawling Ys.
For her second album, Newsom has returned with not only a harp, but an orchestral arrangement by Van Dyke Parks. Ys (pronounced "ees"), at 55 minutes and 42 seconds, is five songs long. Five chorus-free, labyrinthine songs long; you'd need a TelePrompTer to sing along.
When Newsom played at New York's Webster Hall early this November, she first played a solo set, singing tender little songs from The Milk-Eyed Mender to a beguiled crowd, her massive harp resting on her slender shoulder. So thick was the air with crushes on this inimitable girl that the audience was soon drunk with it; smitten myself, I wept for all the small things in the world that get lost and left behind. And I felt like a dork and got embarrassed, though everyone else there was a dork, too.
Sentimental weeping ceased when Newsom's band came out to accompany her in playing Ys straight through. Live, Newsom's harp and voice were more forceful than the swells of the recording; she pushed the many, many words of Ys out of her body with a feverish intensity, and plucked her harp with a striking physicality for someone sitting down and hardly moving her upper body, save her restless arms and fingers. Having not heard the album yet, I tried to follow the lyrics--she sang about a meteor, then a bear, then a bell dropped off a dock, then she missed someone's precious heart. She lost me somewhere after the meteor.
Instead, I exulted in the energy spilling from the stage. Newsom was Arachne, her harp a loom on which she wove mad, enchanted tapestry, whose words and images bled together. She and the band finished to waves of applause while I stood rubbing my sore feet. The show I attended was an early one; in a few hours, Newsom and the band would perform the whole thing all over again, which overwhelmed me. All I had done was to stand there, and I was exhausted after one round.
Many reviews of Ys stress the length of the songs, although tracks that reach beyond 10 minutes are nothing new--free jazz, Grateful Dead or "Trapped in the Closet," anyone? What is notable about Ys' mini-epics are how precisely thought-out and deliberate is each word and note. There are few purely instrumental passages, no lapses into mind-blowing jams or sprees of proggy arpeggios.
All of which makes Ys impressive. But is it good? The timeless, precocious modesty of The Milk-Eyed Mender eclipses Ys in emotional impact, if not scope. Parks' orchestration on Ys dilutes the arresting purity of Newsom's delivery, even though the moments when she's not singing are rare.
Yet Ys refuses to be left alone. The queenly image of Newsom on its cover steadily and quietly confronts the viewer, daring almost coyly: Go ahead, try and figure what the hell all of this is about. The quest is bound to fail, but the voyage will be rewarding.
Eventually, two men did locate the golden hare jewel of Masquerade. They had cheated, communicating with a former girlfriend of Kit Williams for clues. And while it was possible to find the treasure purely though the information in the book, it seems fitting that no one managed to do so in time. A real-life treasure hunt simply blurs the edges of fantasy and truth too much. The lost treasure of Ys is a talisman that makes sense of the whole project, and that talisman lies, inaccessible, in Joanna Newsom's head.