Joanna Newsom: The Female Michelangelo of Music
March 8, 2023
This is going to amble along a little bit, but bear with me. My Mom did not grow up watching basketball. But during the years when my beloved Brooklyn Nets were home to NBA superstar Kevin Durant, I convinced her to watch the games with me. Despite having no prior experience with the game of basketball, it was immediately clear to her that Durant was the best player on the court in nearly every matchup. The fluidity and gracefulness with which he played the sport is mesmerizing to even the most ignorant of basketball viewers. Watching what he does on the court is watching someone execute their craft at the absolute highest level, making the impossible look easy. And with true greatness, that awestruck feeling persists no matter how many times you experience it. That is the feeling that I get when I watch Kevin Durant play basketball. It is also the feeling I get when I listen to the album Ys by American singer-songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom. The only difference is that if I am ranking the greatest basketball players of all time, Durant would fall somewhere in the 10-15 range. When ranking the greatest albums, I have Ys squarely at number 1.
Ys, pronounced ees, is such a nuanced album that the only way I can think to describe it is through a series of complicated metaphors that would likely impress Ms. Newsom herself. Listening to this album is the aural equivalent to tripping on mushrooms while watching The Wizard of Oz. The album is a long, layered, fairytale, replete with seemingly absurd lyrics about whimsical creatures such as talking monkeys, bears, and meadowlarks (which after hearing this album for the first time became one of my favorite words). While on the surface, these ambiguous lyrics may seem meaningless, the album actually carries a profound narrative metaphor about Newsom’s tumultuous relationship with her astrophysical sister Emily, who died suddenly. The album title, Ys, is a reference to the mythical, medieval French city of the same name, which serves as the setting for the events of the album. And what a setting it is. I couldn’t find a more vivid picture of a romanticized life on a manor in a secluded French countryside during the Renaissance era if I went to the Louvre. Beautiful harp chords serve as the background to her elegant prose and descriptive visual storytelling, giving the album a cinematic effect.
In keeping with the basketball analogy theme, the harp is Joanna Newsom’s version of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook. It is her secret weapon, that many few have dared to even attempt, and none have come close to achieving her level of perfection with. If I believed in heaven, I’d imagine that the elevator up to the pearly gates would be playing harp introduction on the track Cosmia. It is so unique and beautiful that it causes the listener to react as if they are watching Van-Gogh paint the starry night in real time.
Beyond the abstract metaphors and beautiful instrumentation, Ys is also a deeply feminist album. Sawdust and Diamonds talks about the struggle of the death of an unborn child, and Only Skin, which is probably the best song on the album, is an in-depth analysis of feminine sexuality, toxic masculinity, love, loss, grief, and so much more, all layered over the most impressive instrumentation that the United State’s premier harpist has ever delivered.
As it is women’s history month, and I have an extensive resume of allyship (no big deal), I thought it was important to talk about the album that I think is both the greatest musical composition ever made, and the most under-appreciated album by the music listening public. I don’t know if this really even needs to be said, but I give Ys a 10+/10. Only In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel even comes close. Plus, Joanna Newsom is married to Andy Samberg, as if we needed any more evidence that she is the most interesting person alive.