A Decade of Joanna Newsom's 'Ys,' the Toughest Album Ever Made About Meteorites and Papier-Mache Doves

Writing music this involved was not the work of a fairy who waves a magic wand, it was the hard-won labor of a woman.
November 3, 2016, 2:42pm

Image via Twitter

"Things that have happened since the last Joanna Newsom album: gay marriage legalized, Lana Del Rey's ENTIRE career, ISIS, Tinder," tweeted Anthony Brian Smith, the Senior Editorial Director of Mic News, last June. It's tough to imagine Joanna Newsom existing on the same plane as even one of those multiple realities. Yet it has been ten years to the day since a 24-year-old Joanna Newsom released her sophomore album Ys. While it was her first album The Milk-Eyed Mender that introduced us to the slightly elfin harp virtuoso with the peculiar voice, alternating between gravelly and squeaky, Ys was her defining album; her OK Computer, her Born in the U.S.A., her Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album cover showed Newsom as a Medieval princess with braids and a flower crown, singing epic tales as she plucked her harp like a traveling bard. The music was breathtakingly complicated and lyrically dense, including a sixteen-minute elegy where she name checks blooming cherry trees and tiny nooses in the same breath. If her first album could be written off as the squawking of a precious creative writing student a little too into Tennyson, then Ys announced her arrival as a true poet and a serious artist.

But Ys (and its surrounding press) also pinned Newsom in the trope of a floaty sylph who summons her otherworldly tunes from a dreamlike netherspace. Magazines published pictures of her talking to birds, like Snow White for the new millennium. A 2010 New York Times profile describes a spirit quest she undertook at the age of 18 where she slept in the woods and didn't eat for three days until she was visited by three white wolves. This image of Newsom as a woodland princess belies that she is, more than anything, an endurance athlete. Newsom spends months reading about her subjects before she even begins to attempt to write lyrics. As much a poet as a musician, every single word she writes is imbued with rich symbolic meaning. (Because of this, she has amassed a collection of fans so rabid, they rival the single-minded obsession of Alan J. Weberman, the self-appointed "Dylanologist" who discovered a secret language in Bob Dylan's music and was prone to rooting around the folk singer's garbage.) Many hours of practice on the harp reduce her fingers to bleeding stumps. This is not the work of fairy who waves a magic wand and music appears. This is the hard-won labor of a woman who has honed her craft since the age of eight.

Comparatively, the album has aged well alongside other indie favourites of the era. For context, 2006 was the year that Pete Doherty of The Libertines was dating Kate Moss. New rave was in full throttle. Cansei de Ser Sexy and Klaxons were the sound du jour. My other favourite album of the time, Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, came out only two months after Ys, yet listening to it now is a stark reminder that time passes with undetectable speed. It now sounds like a kaleidoscopic circus of juvenilia, it's cheerful cacophony borderline unlistenable. On the contrary, Ys is still as fresh as the day it came out.

In the decade since Ys, Newsom has made the transition from indie darling to celebrity harpist. She appeared in an Armani campaign, married comedian Andy Samberg with whom she allegedly bought at $6.25 million dollar home, and went on TV explaining the harp to Larry King. One can now imagine her turning up at the A-list only Met Gala, when previously her image suggested someone more at home leaving breadcrumb trails for animals to follow amongst the ancient California redwoods.

Through a combination of self-deprecating humor and fierce determination, Newsom has managed to successfully dismantle the archetype that once defined her. A woman is not a femme fatale, a gorgeous klutz, a sexy tomboy, or a manic pixie dream girl. Newsom's magic does not exist so that we view her as a nature whisperer or an anachronism whose worldview is informed exclusively by the Bayeux Tapestry. Newsom is a fearsome musician whose magic is all her own.

Isabel Slone is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.