Album: Joanna Newsom
The Milk-Eyed Mender, Drag City
Friday 21 May 2004
It's turning out to be a vintage year for female American roots artists. Joanna Newsom is distinguished from her peers by her chosen instrument (the harp) and by her vocal style, which is eccentric to the point of absurdity. Imagine a cross between creek-dipping rustic Victoria Williams and fragile Scandinavian oddity Stina Nordenstam, and you'll get some idea of Newsom's ickle-girly delivery, which has something of the naive charm of childhood, as well as its piercing clarity.
It's the application of her childlike singing to lyrics of pronounced poetic intelligence that really sets Newsom apart, though. Behind that aw-shucks hayseed delivery lurks a singular blend of sophisticated psychological analysis, abstruse academic allusion and antique scansion. Take the opening track "Bridges and Balloons", where strings of nautical references ride the rolling, shanty gait of Newsom's harp arrangement. Or "Peach, Plum, Pear", whose bustling harpsichord ostinatos (her second instrument being just as eccentric as her first) support a lyric in which a momentary, fleeting interaction is instantly psychoanalysed and then allegorised to just beyond the point of clear comprehension.
Newsom does a lot of this kind of thing, teasing out initial observations on matters such as germination ("Sprout and the Bean") and pets ("Sadie") to inscrutable conclusions. In some cases, her lyrics appear to be guided as much by assonance or circumstance as by meaning, and in several songs she grapples with the problems of bearing such a heightened aesthetic sensibility. "Inflammatory Writ", for instance, seems to be about the elusive muse, the difficulty of penning some "text that would incite a light 'Be lit' ". Proceeding with dry, self-deprecating wit, she eventually admits defeat, claiming kinship with fellow failed littérateurs: "While across the great plains, keening lovely and awful/ Ululate the lost Great American Novels/ An unlawful lot, left to stutter and freeze, floodlit."
Elsewhere, in "En Gallop", she considers the fragility of artistic ambition in collision with cruel economic realities: "Never draw so close to the heat/ That you forget that you must eat," she advises, sagely. In truth, it's hard to see where Newsom fits in the wider scheme of today's pop culture, unless her extreme oddity serendipitously hits a common chord with jaded musical outsiders seeking something new. Not that she'll be that bothered, if "This Side of the Blue" is anything to go by. An affectionate portrait of San Franciscan bohemian life, it suggests a mind fully focused on the immediate moment, with the future left to its own devices: "And the rest of our lives/ Will the moments accrue/ When the shape of their goneness/ Will flare up anew."
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