Joanna Newsom’s Ys is a polarizing album even after all these years. But it’s also the quintessential example of what art could be when done right.
Whether you write novels, music, or produce in a visual medium, I think a lot can be gained from studying why this album works.
Read on to hear my analysis along with my philosophy of art.
I completely understand where people are coming from that hate this album. There are people who say the vocals are shrill, the songs are too long, or even unstructured.
These are all true. The songs are throughcomposed, which tends to be an older style of music without verses or choruses. This allows a long-form story to be told.
Unfortunately, even astute listeners tend to get confused about the story in these songs. We’ll get there.
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 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 own life perfectly.
Philosophy of Art
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.
As a writer, I think it does. There’s a saying that the more specific you are, the more general it becomes. This sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense.
If you say some general platitude like money can’t buy happiness, then people don’t respond. They roll their eyes. But now if you write a very specific story with this as the theme, you can make the person feel it without being patronizing or preachy.
The more vivid and specific the details, the more the person will experience the underlying messages and think of them as their own. Art doesn’t have to have a message, but this connection it can make is essential in my view.
David Foster Wallace said that literature is important because it makes us feel less alone. We see that others have all had the same thoughts and experiences as us. This is something that art can do in a way that nothing else can.
Joanna Newsom’s Ys
There are many other aspects of Joanna Newsom’s music I could go on about, but I think what I just mentioned is the key element.
It’s uncompromising in its radical artistic vision. But it’s also incredibly vivid in the descriptive language. It’s so specific as to be fully general to everyone.
Maybe I should give some examples of her lyrics.
I wish I could post the entire song Sawdust & Diamonds.
This song occurs as the middle of the five. It’s already a shocking departure from the album because it’s the only song without full orchestration. This song is harp and voice—one of the most intimate musical combinations.
It is abstract, but as I sit here reading it, it couldn’t be any more obvious what it is about. 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.
The song has a dramatic shift in the middle. The harp patterns completely change from full, two-handed fast triplet patterns to a sparse duple pattern.
The melodic line shift from soaring, full-ranged lines to a lower, narrow range.
I wanted to say:
why the long face?
Something has happened, and her lover is sad now. The section goes on with the melody pulling more and more out of the narrow range. The repetition obsesses on lifting her lover’s sad mood.
Sing, I will swallow your sadness, and eat your cold clay,
just to lift your long face;
And though it may be madness, I will take to the grave
your precious longface.
And though our bones they may break, and our souls separate —
Why the long face?
And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil —
Why the long face?
The lyrics alone cannot do this section justice. I’ve heard this song a hundred times, and this moment gets me every time. She loves this person so much that she’s willing to do anything to get the lover out of this possible depression.
And those images go so deep. The bones breaking and souls separating references growing old. If you’re not convinced, the next line “bodies recoil from the grip of the soil” makes it clear.
Yet, even death wouldn’t be enough to end this desperate need to lift her lover’s sadness. When you experience this moment in its proper place in the album, it’s devastating and powerful despite being the most paired down section musically.
It’s raw, and exposed and, as I mentioned earlier, so specific that anyone listening will instantly feel this moment in their core. We’ve all been there.
We’ll shift the interpretation through the lens of our own experiences and suddenly feel less alone.
I’m not sure I will ever grow tired of this album, and I’ll keep reinterpreting it to suit my current life.
And that’s exactly what great art should do.