Sympathetic Stupid

Monday, September 05, 2005

Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender

Words! Voice! Harp!

It's kinda a shame that I'd heard Bridges And Balloons on the radio, because the first impression of the album, when Joanna's voice first hits you, after a few bars of gentle, understated harp, is somewhat blunted by knowing what's coming. I often think I'd love to be able to have another first listen to a great album such as this, but in fact the first listen is often a little underwhelming, by the Law Of Inverse Attractiveness.

It's hard to get what makes the album the first time through, which is a good sign because of the afore-mentioned law. Newsom's voice makes it hard; the music is at turns sublime and bombastic, but her squeaky pixieish, unconventional voice is always at the top of the mix. Big lumps of enthusiasm and emotion don't make it any easier, and in this time of Idol-style pure voices she'll never get superstardom.

But once you're attuned to her otherwordly tone, the music reappears. The harp is widespread, of course, as that's Newsom's main instrument, and is especially impressive when it underpins the great The Book Of Right-On. Then, the faster, more immediately appealing tracks have bouncy piano (Inflammatory Writ) and harpsichord (Peach, Plum Pear) parts. Production's prefectly clear, and all the musicianship is exemplary, suiting her voice, with the odd track out being Three Little Babes, a fairly standard arrangement of a folk song, which for mine just misses. Possibly it's the male voice singing harmony, or else the fact that the recording quality is a little more primitive than the rest of the album. It's still not a bad track, but it interrupts the flow of the album.

And the lyrics themselves, which are what keeps me listening. They're reminiscent for me of the best of Glenn Richards; dense, literate, prosy fables. The album opens with: "We sailed away on a winter's day, with fate as malleable as clay; but ships are fallible I say, and the nautical, like all things, fades." The lyrics are truly timeless, evoking pieces of ancient times and truly modern themes: "While across the great plains, keening lovely & awful, ululate the last Great American Novels". Who else can use 'ululate' or 'dirigible' or 'gasplessly'?

Every track on the album deserves a thesis; I could rave on the pretty modern star-fable of Cassiopeia or the wistful horror-music theme of Swansea, but the album can only speak for itself. Give it a chance and it will reward.