I remember seeing Ys, before I’d ever heard it, in the record collection of a couple in Holland, old friends of my parents we were visiting in Amsterdam. The cover intrigued me: a portrait of a woman in something like a milkmaid’s clothes, with a garland of flowers around her blonde, plaited hair. In one hand she holds a sickle, in the other a small pinned butterfly or moth in a gilded frame. On the windowsill, a blackbird holds a cherry in its mouth; beyond it, mountains, trees, a river. It looked like something from another century, another land, and I suppose I assumed it was Dutch, maybe an old record from the 70s, when ornateness and indulgence were more in fashion. In fact, this trip was in late 2006, so the record would have just been released a few months, perhaps weeks, beforehand.
A decade on, and the record, though I’ve listened to it hundreds of times now, still has the same sense of mystery and intrigue about it, the same promise of being whisked away to another land. We are there, straight away, at the start of ‘Emily’: “a rusty light on the pines tonight”, “old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow”, “a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky had been breathing on a mirror”. But with closer reading, we realise how these drunk-on-language, natural images are hauntingly personal: beneath the metaphors, Joanna (or the narrator) is telling the story of how her sister comforted her during a failed pregnancy. That she does this almost entirely through closely observed natural imagery is remarkable. Her aimlessness following the loss is evoked in the way “peonies nod in the breeze, and while they wetly bow, with hydrocephalitic listlessness, ants mop up their brow”. What an astonishing image! Later she sees salvation in the stars: “the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light” turns out to be an image of the big dipper, recalling the little meteorite poem that serves as the song’s chorus. Underneath thick layers of allegory and embellishment are stark, cuttingly true feelings, lump-in-the-throat emotions.
Newsom has a taste for unusual-sounding words – “pleiades”, “kith”, “yarrow”, “lissome”, “diluvian” – which I imagine might grate for some people. Hers are dense lyrics, certainly, and require a great deal of close reading: chasing down each mystery often uncovers yet more mysteries. They are also open lyrics, allowing for multiple readings. Yet they do offer answers, too, and careful research reveals that they are far from random, or chosen purely for sound’s sake. The last lines of ‘Emily’ are as powerful, even without the music, as any poetry I’ve read: “Joy, landlocked in bodies that don’t keep, dumbstruck with the sweetness of being, till we don’t be. Told: take this, eat this”. That slightly awkward “don’t be” is as painful and undignified as death is. And in the apparently Eucharist-referencing last image is one of the common themes throughout these five songs: transformation.
The lyrics, though, are only one part of the puzzle. More astonishing still is Newsom’s voice. I can just about understand why people might have a problem with it on The Milk-Eyed Mender, where she does tend to yelp and wail a little unpredictably (though I think it’s beautiful), but from Ys onwards, any complaints against her voice are ridiculous. It is an astonishing force, capable of a huge range of emotion and expression. Though it is a great pleasure to comb through the lyrics and try to unpick them, there is no need to do so to grasp their meaning, for it is all carried in the delivery. ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’, the simplest track (‘simple’ being, here, a relative term), is maybe the most powerful. Accompanied only by her harp, all that carries us through for ten minutes is that voice. The way she moves from what sounds like almost complete resignation in the opening lines (“From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs, through the rest of my life, do you wait for me there?”), through the stirring of desire and the sense of hope awakening again as the song unfolds, is captivating: and indeed we finish with her wringing out about twelve different emotions from the word ‘desire’ itself, sung repeatedly towards the song’s close. Other vocal highlights include the delivery of the lines “scrape your knee it is only skin, makes the sound of violins”, in ‘Only Skin’, which get me every time, and the final, ecstatic eruptions of ‘Cosmia’: “and I miss your precious heart!”
And then, of course, there is the music itself. Van Dyke Parks, whose 1968 album Song Cycle is also a favourite of mine, provided orchestral arrangements for four of the album’s five tracks, and they are certainly an inseparable part of the albums charm, accentuating and colouring and countering its many subtle shades of mood and tone. But the star of the show is, of course, the harp itself. I cannot get into technical details here, not being a harpist, but the range of the playing seems, to me, astonishing. Her melodies always surprise. They are crafted to be as affecting as possible, to catch you out even on the hundredth listen. For an example, choose any moment on any song on the album. Really. Anywhere. Nowhere is the writing lazy or obvious, and yet for all its risk-taking, there are somehow no missteps. It’s 55 minutes of perfection.
So, these are dense, difficult, winding, intricate songs, ranging from seven to seventeen minutes long, that reveal more with each listen. But here’s some other adjectives I’d throw at the album too: catchy (there’s plenty of melodic hooks here, even if they’re not anchored to verses and choruses), fun (parts of ‘Monkey and Bear’, a recounting of an origin story of Ursa Major, are even funny, though it’s also maybe the saddest song on the record), effortless (that seems an odd choice, when so much effort has clearly gone into it, but it never sounds laboured; it wears its accomplishments lightly). I offer these to counter a prevailing idea about the album that I profoundly disagree with: that it is a difficult listen. Yes, effort in listening reaps, as it always does, reward. But the album makes such effort easy, because it always delights, carries you with it, extends a hand to you. It is generous, never off-putting. It is deep and powerful and absolutely serious, but it is also sprightly and even a bit silly, committing to its own quirks, wearing them proudly.
Her catalogue has deepened and broadened greatly over the last ten years, with the hugely ambitious and varied triple album Have One on Me in 2010, and last year’s gorgeous Divers, yet still nothing else sounds quite like Ys. Nothing spins quite the same magic web. If you’ve never heard it before, I envy you – you have such a treat in store. But I don’t envy you too much, because I’ve grown and changed with this album, and it’s become a part of me. And I look forward to the next ten years with it.