I’ve sort of posted about Joanna Newsom before, but I really must come back and give her a full post. I really hate to use the album Ys as a perfect example of exactly what I think art should be, since it is such a polarizing album. I understand why, too. I completely understand where people are coming from that hate this album. There are people who say it is unlistenable (probably not a real word).
In any case, as I understand the back story, this is an album that recounts a full year of Newsom’s life. The lyrics are directly referencing actual, real, exact events of her life. But the lyrics are incredibly abstract. The concreteness of the events that they are based on gives the songs every bit of emotion and realness as if she were telling the events straight-up. The actual lyrical abstraction into story-metaphors allows the listeners to interpret into their own situation.
I’ve put serious listening into this album at three very different points in my life. All three times I have been 100% sure that I knew exactly what had happened in Newsom’s life that she was referring to. All three times my interpretations have been radically different. This is because I was identifying so well with the emotion and metaphor in the song. I am completely baffled at my current listening, but again it fits my situation perfectly.
To me this is exactly what art should be. It should be an abstracting of real life in such a way that the viewer feels as if it is exactly their own situation.
There are some interesting cases out there that I could bring up. The first that comes to mind is Connor Oberst (at least in the early Bright Eyes stuff). It is incredibly emotive and about some really intense things. Overall, Oberst is very specific lyrically. I think in this case that is alienating. As a listener, it is hard to change the details of these specific stories to really relate to them.
One thing I haven’t put a lot of thought into is whether this interpretation of great art translates well outside of the song/poem medium. My guess is it doesn’t. It seems like it would be hard to write a novel about a specific event, but keep everything really vague so that you don’t know what the event is.
There are many, many other aspects of Newsom’s music I could go on about, but I think what I just mentioned is the key element.
Maybe I should give some examples of her lyrics. I wish I could post the entire song Sawdust & Diamonds. It is so ridiculously abstract, but as I sit here reading it, it couldn’t be any more obvious what it is about exactly. Anyway, here is a part of it:
and the little white dove
made with love, made with love:
made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers
swings a low sickle arc
from its perch in the dark:
settle down my desire
The white dove is the relationship she is in. Although, she has created the relationship with care and love, it is also ad hoc patched together in places (the fact that glue and pliers had to be used). This doesn’t matter because she still desires the person and they’ll fight through it.
then the system of strings tugs on the tip of my wings
(cut from cardboard and old magazines)
makes me warble and rise like a sparrow
and in the place where I stood, there is a circle of wood
a cord or two, which you chop and you stack in your barrow
(First off, the “system of strings” is a recurring theme. Earlier it was mentioned: there’s a light in the wings, hits this system of strings/ from the side while they swing;/ see the wires, the wires, the wires)
The dove (relationship) is being held up artificially with wires. Again, the ad hoc construction of the relationship is mentioned since the dove is made of cardboard and magazines. She sees the wires. She is aware that it is artificial in some sense.
There is evidence of her resistance to falling in love with this person (“love, you ought not!/no you ought not!”). This is probably due to her being aware of all the faults and artificiality of the relationship. Perhaps she fears that her construction isn’t strong enough and the system of strings will collapse.
But she becomes aware that every relationship and person has faults. Resisting falling in love is not an option and it overtakes her at some point (“then the furthermost shake drove a murdering stake in/and cleft me right down through my center/and I shouldn’t say so, but I know that it was then, or never”)
In any event, I certainly have never interpreted the song this way before (I used to be convinced that it was about death, actually). And it baffles me, since this must be correct. But I had just as much evidence for my last interpretation. I’m not sure I will ever grow tired of this album.