A Quiet Return


I want to quietly return to trying to write about music.

Last year I started a blog called Ice Mask Whale. This is the next evolution of that blog. A new site, a new name. Some attempts at definition…

Attempt No. 1


The internet is obsessed with the new, feeding on new stories, new gossip, new quick-takes and hot-takes, newly generated content, empty puffs of novelty designed only to be clicked on. Gone are actual paradigms – all that remains are paradigm shifts, a constantly refreshing page. Yet, at at the same time, it is obsessed with the past, with the cataloguing of photographs and moments, viewed through the hazy filter of time, or the false nostalgia of an Instagram filter. Music journalism is often directed down these two lines as well: it feeds, too, on new artists, new album announcements, new gimmicks, new styles, and, simultaneously, on nostalgia for the old styles: best of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. If music is not new enough to fit into the former cateogory (“check this out”) but not old enough to fit into the latter (“remember this?”) then nothing is written about it – indeed, nothing can be written about it, because we don’t have a framework for it. It is lost in the cracks, dead in the water, caught between exposure and retrospective, between review and re-view. Yet obviously we still listen to this music. Obviously there are still things to say. To listen between the noisy bugle call of the new and the hazy nostalgia of the old is to listen in the quiet return: to music after it has emerged, hot and molten and glowing, but before it has hardened. Not a hot-take, nor a hardened, established viewpoint, but something in between: a cooling take, a sustained reflection.

Attempt No. 2


Think of a song, and it quietly returns to your mind. It is a kind of conjuring magic. The way a ghost must sense things: there and not there.

Attempt No. 3


Aside from the immediate pleasures of actual in-the-moment listening, what other pleasures are there in music? There is a second pleasure in reflecting on music, in hearing it again in the mind’s ear, in reimagining it through metaphor. The first pleasure is outside of language: we listen to music because it is better than language, saying less but communicating more. Yet this second pleasure – the afterburn of the music, the ghostly impressions it leaves behind itself – is accessible to language. All art has this dual pleasure: there is the pleasure of actually reading a novel, word-by-word, and then there is the pleasure of remembering it afterwards, inhabiting the haunted memory palace we build in our minds as we read it. So it is with music. But with the novel, both pleasures are tangible enough to write about: the material of the critic (language) is used on the material of the examined object (language). With the music writer, this is not the case, the music itself being untouchable by language (hence “dancing about architecture“). So the music writer is left with only the afterburn of it, its quiet (silent) return in the mind. This is all we can write about. As music passes from sensory experience (present) to non-sensory memory (past), a translation occurs – it becomes not just sound but colour, tone, texture, mood, image, and indeed, language. This might happen in a fraction of a second – as when we talk of “an immediate impression” – or gradually, over repeated exposures. It is these translations and impressions we reflect on, mull over, return to, when we write about music.

Attempt No. 4


We are sometimes prone to expect immediate gratification from things. If something doesn’t immediately make sense, immediately reveal itself fully to us, we shut it out: label it as obscure, obtuse, “not for us”. But the deepest connections we have with things (pieces of music, places, people) are often with the things we don’t immediately like, the things that take some time and work to adjust to. The ‘growers’. The best records don’t announce themselves noisily or showily or immediately but require us to quietly return to them, again and again. This quiet returning breeds its own quiet return, like the return on a long-term investment: gradual, accumulative, but eventually extensive. This is the quiet return of music.


Quaterfaves: Jan-Mar ’17


(This was a regular feature on the previous blog, and though it certainly falls into the “check this out!” category of music writing, it’s one I’d like to continue. It’s a quarterly round-up of my favourite recent releases, with an emphasis on those which are more likely to have slipped under the radar.)

Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

This is the best record that no one is talking about. Chamber pop meets jazz guitar meets esoteric film music meets… What is this record? I have no idea. Lee even makes his own instruments, with exotic sounding names like the ‘pyraharp’, which looks like this. There’s a tropical, swampy vibe hanging over the whole thing, belying his involvement in Them Natives. Just listen to it already.

PC Worship – Buried Wish

Abandoned spaces, junkyards, outsider art environments: these are the spiritual homes of this warped guitar music. The PCs being worshipped are piled up in a trash heap of plastic casing, cracked screens and wires. (Everyone is on their tablets.) It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a rock record this much. There’s the obvious appeal of a squawky, clanging number like ‘Blank Touch’, or the catchy, White Denim-esque ‘Rivers Running Sideways’, but some of the best stuff is hidden in the back half: warbly, uncertain compositions like ‘Flowers & Hunting’ and ‘Moons’, which sounds like something off an old Liars record.

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Whispered late at night. Its instrumentals are all dreamy caverns to get lost in, but it provides a guide from its beguiling beginning: follow my voice.

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Been waiting for this for a while, and it doesn’t disappoint, though it’s a difficult record to fully grasp. No matter how much you turn up the volume, it feels too quiet. Quietness is built into it by design. You can never quite hear it clearly, as though it doesn’t want to be tied down or caught. Something like a chorus comes along unexpectedly in Jenny Hval collaboration ‘Anxi’, but then isn’t returned to; it slips away and escapes in a broken cascade of beats. ‘Lucid’ risks repeating its chorus, but its heavy reverb dissolves it before you can catch it anyway. But then, reverb heavy vocals are easy to make diffuse; that she manages to make the pattering hi-hats and bright flickers of synths at the end of the song feel the same is cleverer. Things start to build with the house-y thump of ‘Evolution’, and climax in the extended clatter of ‘8’ (an infinity sign turned on its side?), but it still all feels oddly shrouded in mist. And yet it is never vague, either. It refuses to be remembered, but also refuses to be forgotten.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – The Tourist

The hugely underrated songwriter Alec Ounsworth returns with another record full of unfussily strange songs. Lead single ‘Fireproof’ layers insistent, squiggly guitar hook on top of insistent, squiggly guitar hook. ‘Unfolding Above Celibate Moon’ is both carnivalesque and celestial at the same time. ‘Better Off’ climaxes with one of his classic one-note vocal hooks. ‘The Pilot’ and ‘Loose Ends’ are wistful and longing. As on previous album Only Run, this feels like a second, more grown-up period for CYHSY, less wacky and unpredictable than their earlier work, but also subtler and truer. Ignore the general internet narrative about this band (victims of blog hype, diminishing returns, etc. etc.); they are consistently excellent.

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Following great records by Japanese Breakfast and Mitski last year, here’s further proof that Asian-American women are currently making some of the best indie rock around. (I don’t mean to lump these artists into a ‘scene’, though they have all toured together, so there’s definitely a connection there.) I like the title, where ‘works’ can be read as both a present tense verb (sounding like a mantra, as well as a twist on a certain R.E.M. song) and a plural noun (suggesting the tracks themselves are the ‘works’, of and for and by ‘everybody’). I also like the music, which blends in elements of Broadcast and The Microphones and (as Melina Duterte has repeatedly pointed out in interviews) Carly Rae Jepson, without losing its own strong sense of identity.

Alix Hyde – Wanderings

Difficult to find much out about this release online, other than the fact that Hyde also does illustrations, which are really lovely, and accompany the music perfectly. It’s slightly too busy to be called ambient (it doesn’t quite float into the background, but holds attention) yet it does have a diffuse, difficult-to-hold-onto quality that it shares with music of that sphere. The tracks mix different elements together like George concocting his marvellous medicines, so that you never quite know what’s round the corner: vocals unexpectedly arrive ten tracks in, first in the form of a looped sample in ‘All I Want Is You’, and then some soft, plaintive singing (Hyde’s own?) in ‘Heaven’. It’s wonder-full.

Melted, Removed, Beached

mixed trio

Of course, before we had fridges, ice was the only way we could keep our food cold. We couldn’t make the stuff ourselves, so we had to harvest it and store it in ice houses, which sound rather exciting, like that huge melting ice palace James Bond has to escape from in Die Another Day, but are really just small, very cold rooms. Perhaps you’ve seen one in a National Trust property somewhere.

Under a microscope, the structure of ice cream is very similar to that of lava.

There are 16 kinds of ice, say the scientists. The kind in your freezer is kind number 4. Kind number 3 is actually denser than water, meaning that if icebergs and ice cubes were made of it, they would sink. Kind number 11 is ferroelectric – it exhibits electric polarization, which can be manipulated and reversed.

Aristotle was the first person to notice that hot water freezes faster than cold water. We still don’t understand why.

If you freeze water really, really, really fast then it doesn’t turn into ice at all, but into a chaotic amorphous solid called ‘glassy water’. This is pretty difficult to do at home – you have to get the water temperature down to -137°C in a matter of milliseconds. Surprising, then, that it’s actually the most common form of water in the universe. Comets are made from it.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, they brought a block of ice all the way from Lake Wenham in Massachusetts to The Strand in London, where they put it on display with the day’s newspaper behind it so that passers-by could marvel at how clear it was.

This, of course, was only after the customs officials at the ports got used to the idea. When they first shipped ice to Britain, packed in sawdust to insulate it, the officials were so confused about how to classify it that 300 tonnes of the stuff melted while they tried to make their minds up.

Sometimes I feel nostalgic because I can still remember when a 99 whippy ice cream with a flake actually cost 99p.

ice trio

A mask can be used for protection, or as a disguise, or, if you’re being hunted down by a madman with an ice pick, as both.

In Ancient Greece, masks had a brass megaphone in the mouth to amplify what the actor was saying.

In Venice, the situation is pretty much the reverse. Their ‘moretta muta’ carnival masks are held in place not with straps but with a little button that the wearer holds in her mouth, rendering her unable to say much at all.

The word ‘mask’ goes back to the 16th Century, to the French masque, meaning ‘a covering to hide or guard the face’, which itself goes back to the Italian word maschera, which itself goes back to the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost’ or ‘nightmare’, which itself quite possibly goes back to the Arabic word maskharah, which is to do with being ‘a buffoon’ and ‘making a mockery’ of yourself. So if you’re applying mascara around your eyes before a night out, you’re really just being a fool.

There’s also an old Occitan word masco, meaning ‘witch’, a word which still survives in some dialects; in Beziers, it means ‘dark cloud before the rain comes’.

In Indonesia, the star of a Topeng dance has around 30 to 40 masks for his exclusive use. No one else is allowed to wear these masks on fear of upsetting the spirits that reside within them. When the dancer dies, his masks are never touched again, never moved from the place they happen to be lying at the moment of his death.

The oldest mask is 9000 years old and is a death mask.

In Japanese Noh theatre, the masks are so carefully carved that they can convey different expressions and moods simply by the angle the light falls on them.

You can make a mask out of almost anything: wood, metal, clay, stone, paper, cloth, ivory, fur, shells, feathers, corn husks, human skulls and teeth. You can even make one out of ice. And, indeed, whalebone.

mask trio

Blue whales are the largest creatures ever to have lived on the earth. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant, their hearts as much as a car. Their aortas are large enough for a human child to crawl through. They are one of the loudest animals on the planet, though we can’t hear them. They hunt in the deep and breathe at the surface. In the early 20th century we nearly killed them all hunting for whale oil.

Sperm whales have the heaviest brains of any animal, weighing in at 9kg. Their heads also contain a cavity, large enough to park a car inside, filled with a yellowish waxy substance called spermaceti, a substance also much sought after by whalers.

Southern right whales have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom – each pair weighs around a tonne, which is like having 1000 bags of sugar strapped down there.

When a whale sticks its head out of the water it is called ‘spyhopping’. When it sticks its tail out of the water it is called ‘lobtailing’. These sounds like crimes, but aren’t. When it leaps right out of the water it is called ‘breaching’ and when it lies just under the surface it is called ‘logging’.

A whale’s brain sleeps one half at a time, so that the other half doesn’t forget to go up to the surface and breathe. If a whale fell completely asleep, it would drown.

Fin whales pee around 970 litres of urine a day, about as much as three very full bathtubs.

Humpback whales sing strange, eerie, and beautiful songs that can last for up to 30 minutes and include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. This makes them the jazz musicians of the whale world.

Bowhead whales have the thickest blubber of any animal, up to 70cm thick, but then they live exclusively in the Arctic, which is fairly cold, on account of all the ice.

whale trio

(This originally appeared as the “About” page of Ice Mask Whale, the predecessor of The Quiet Return.)

Albums of the Year 2016


Here are TQR’s favourite albums of the year. Find a spotify playlist at the bottom of the post. There were, of course, many other great albums this year. Hovering just outside this top ten are Leonard Cohen’s haunting swansong You Want It Darker, Frank Ocean’s emotionally subtle suite Blonde, Kevin Morby’s brilliantly addictive Singing Saw, the surprise return of The Avalanches with Wildflower, as well as excellent releases from TQR favourites like Tim Hecker, Julianna Barwick and Lambchop. But as fine as those records are, here are the ten I’m most vouching for…



Much of Ears reminds me of evolution, of the fizzing, frothing, foaming soup at the beginning of time. But it also evokes human attempts to replicate evolution’s chemical concoctions, through things like the process artworks of Richard Serra and Morris Louis, or Pollock’s drips, or the randomly generated planets of No Man’s Sky. The criss-crossing wires of the Buchla synthesiser – a rare, impossibly complicated early electronic instrument, which Smith specialises in playing – look like a tangle of DNA strands, cross-pollinating and producing unexpected mutations and evolutions. Out of all these effervescent, electronic soapsuds come odd, unexpected bubbles of melody or song, often in the form of chant, as in ‘Arthropoda’ and ‘First Flight’, but sometimes in even more unexpected guises, as in what sounds like a flute appearing halfway through ‘Wetlands’, or a saxophone in ‘Rare Things Grow’. These song-bubbles sometimes resemble other artists – ‘Envelop’ reminds me of Julian Lynch, ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ of The Knife – but inevitably dissolve back into Smith’s unique potions.



Animal Collective’s music seems to exist well outside the zeitgeist now. It seems funny, in retrospect, that they went through a period of being popular and adored at all. Merriweather Post Pavilion, their most critically-praised album, is just as weird, overstuffed, chaotic and repetitive to these ears as the extreme high-and-low frequencies of Here Comes the Indian (long before it) or the demented kid’s TV themes of Painting With (long after it). My point is, they’ve always made music for outsiders, for weirdos. They like to play with things that teeter on the verge of annoying: meowing like kittens on ‘Leaf House’ from Sung Tongs, repeatedly dismantling, in a discordant clash, the gorgeous swells of ‘Daffy Duck’ from Feels. On the verge of annoying but, for me, never quite tipping into it: that’s what makes them thrilling. Painting With is much the same: the repeated trick of Lennox and Portner alternating each syllable of the vocal lines, the squelchy, rubbery synth sounds that you feel in your body, the ‘Wipeout’ laugh and snatches of Golden Girls dialogue flitting around in the mix. You either love this stuff or hate it. The criticism that such playfulness is childish is surely offset by the lyrics, which read as humble attempts at tackling serious subject matter: the environment, gender, the internet. And just as previous albums have had their own distinct sense of landscape (a treehouse for Sung Tongs, a campfire for Campfire Songs) these feel like Florida songs, the sounds repeatedly recalling the state’s mangrove swamps, as when the last word of “so many ways” on ‘Hocus Pocus’ seems to melt in the heat. “Floridada, floridada…”



This is infectious pop music, with an instrumental backdrop that is somehow both minimalist and stark, yet hugely varied in terms of its influences. Everything is polished and sharp and glittering, doing lots with little. Take ‘It Means I Love You’, which starts out with a house-y kick drum and some South African-sounding tabla, before drums straight out of a Chicago footwork track come in. And yet despite its variety of rhythms, the track is never cluttered, with Lanza’s hook cutting through everything like a knife through silk: “when you look into my eyes boy, it means I love you”. That seems a pretty strange thing to say: when you look at me, it means I love you. Does the singer just want someone to pay attention to them? Desire is perhaps the key theme here, treated subtly and complexly throughout. Her voice is also great throughout: I love the way it hiccups on the hook of ‘Going Somewhere’, the way it seductively draws you in on ‘New Ogi’ and then dismissively shrugs you off (“I say it to your face but it doesn’t mean a thing, no!”) on ‘VW Violence’. And yet, with characteristic subtlety, that last line could equally be read as insecure: as the singer worrying about being ignored. These moments of looking, of eye contact, appear throughout (“don’t look when you talk to me”) and always have an emotional tug to them. Also, great songs for dancing round the kitchen to.



I already wrote a whole post about this, so don’t want to add too much here. It’s Radiohead. It has ‘True Love Waits’ on it, an absolutely gorgeous, heartbreakingly sad version of ‘True Love Waits’ on it. It’s very good.


blackstarA record which hung over the whole year, “at the centre of it all”. A final, burning goodbye, “in the villa of amen”. Indelibly linked, of course, to Bowie’s death just a few days after its release. He knew he was dying, he kept it a secret from almost everyone, and he channelled that secret knowledge into a record which looks death squarely in the face, a record which is ready for death, which dances with it. A record which is fierce in its experimentation, forward-thinking where one might expect it to be maudlin or nostalgic. Honestly, I can’t get over that title track. It’s by turns eerie and sad and funky and transcendent. And then ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ comes rumbling out the gate, consisting for more almost a minute of nothing more than an insistent drum beat and some odd flecks of sax and noise. “Man, she punched me like a dude!” Oh, Bowie. You can’t give everything away, but you gave us this.



Who knew we needed the Tribe back so badly? Hearing lead track ‘We the People’ for the first time was revelatory. Of all the comebacks this year, the Tribe’s felt like the most necessary. That instantly classic chorus – “all you black folks, you must go; all you Mexicans, you must go…” – will remind us for years to come of what it was like to be alive in this horrible year. Yet music like this is one potential antidote: ‘The Donald’ doubles as both a tribute to member Phife Dawg, who died from diabetes this year, and (without ever explicitly acknowledging it) a counter-narrative to another Donald trying to build his own self-aggrandising legend. The album somehow feels simultaneously like classic 90s ATCQ (IMW is a huge Low End Theory fan) and yet also completely current and relevant and necessary. Everyone is on top form, musically, vocally, lyrically. Like Wildflower by The Avalanches, it is startling that this album exists at all, and even more startling that it’s actually any good. But where Wildflower inevitably feels a little nostalgic, this feels bang up-to-date. Apparently, despite the large number of guests – Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Jack White – everything here was recorded in the same room, in Q-Tip’s house. You can feel that spirit of togetherness throughout. It feels much needed.



Like Lambchop’s Flotus, Craig uses vocal processing here in genuinely unexpected and creative ways. The record is bookended by two equally vital versions of the same song, ‘Contain’. The opening ‘Astoria Version’ sputters into life with a distorted drum pulse, which gives way to a distant squiggle of what sounds like the decayed corpse of a melody, something deep into one of William Basinski’s decay processes. And then Craig starts singing – in his astonishing, operatically trained voice – through heavy auto-tune. It’s unexpected even a dozen listens in and yet, as the song builds and builds into a ten-minute waterfall of noise and drone, it begins to make sense. Equally captivating, and equally unexpected after the hour-plus of experimental ambient music that has preceded it, is the closing ‘Cedar Version’, a tender, lo-fi ballad with strummed acoustic guitar. I guess expectations are all about context. Between those two bookends, the record dissolves into all kinds of shreds of emotive texture and tone. It is an album which uses the language of ambient music – that is, essentially, background music – in such a way that it utterly absorbs attention while listening. I don’t move, I just listen.


elzasoaresA record made by a woman with more life and grit and chutzpah than most artists a quarter of her age. A samba record that sounds nothing like you’d expect a samba record to sound like. A record by a 79-year old with a song called ‘Pra Fuder’, translation: ‘To Fuck’. A record which, like Beyonce’s and Solange’s, explored what it means to be a black woman in 2016. A record carried by incredible musicianship, but even more by that incredible, malleable, all natural force of Soares’s voice, a voice which, like Leonard Cohen’s on You Want It Darker, has gained layer upon layer of complexity and character as it has aged. A record which opened and closed with the raw acapella power of that voice. A record by a woman at the end of the world, do fim do mundo.



It just starts. Thwack: you’re hit with a wall of texture. These are songs built on what sound like great slabs of texture, cross-cuts through the surface of the earth, layers of sediment packed on top of each other, millions of years of accrual. And atop these huge, rich slices of instrumentation, mixed well above them like the voice of God, is Cave’s gravelly spoken poetry. It is impossible not to be moved by these songs – it is some of the darkest and most pain-wracked music I’ve ever heard. “You’re a young man waking covered in blood that isn’t yours.” Is that an image of birth, or death? Impossible to know. I’m trying not to mention Cave’s son’s death, but it is impossible – though much of this music was written beforehand, that horrible event has inevitably seeped its way into the album. The whole thing is a desperate prayer: “with my voice, I am calling you” goes the first track; “I called out, I called out, right across the sea” goes the last. The first five songs are overwhelmingly dark, almost hopeless, but cracks of light do appear towards the record’s end. Yet I almost find these songs – ‘I Need You’, ‘Distant Sky’ – even more difficult to listen to, the sound of a man trying to escape from his pain. And then, the soft catharsis (a strange oxymoron, but I don’t know how else to put it) of the closing title track: breath-taking.


varmintsOpening with the astonishing alarm call that is ‘Nautilus’, everything about this album is surprising, thrilling, and constantly catches you off guard. Example: the opening track builds and builds, horns and synths locked in an increasingly intense battle in the air, and then finally, finally, almost three and a half minutes in, the drums kick in, and they seem to slow the track down. How does she do that? Like many others on this list, Meredith combines apparently disparate influences into something startling and new: classical, dance, pop, guitar rock, experimental noise, ambient. It’s all here, and yet it somehow (to use an old cliché) adds to more than the sum of its parts. My appreciation of this music deepened enormously after seeing it performed live in September: her joy in performing was palpable, and the musicianship involved in actually making this cacophony of sound was astonishing. Though there is certainly sadness and uncertainty and anxiety in this music – as on the yearning ‘Scrimshaw’, the pent up nervousness in ‘R-Type’, the freaked-out sideways-glancing of ‘The Vapours’ – the album repeatedly arrives at small moments of hope. It refuses to give up that little spark of hopefulness. In a year in which so many tongues were occupied with lies and slander and hate speech, in which overt racism and sexism has become more acceptable and widespread, in which many people preferred to make bitter jokes and snap judgements rather than trying to understand opposite points of view, Varmints dares us instead to “say something helpful”. And I think that is why I liked this record more than any other this year. I found it helpful. I found listening to it helpful. It was a light among so much darkness.

Ys, Ten Years On


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.