And the upgrading continues; it is one of the most lovely comforts of getting older. I turn 30 at Christmas, and I look forward to this because I know that if I spend 2011 reading the same great books I read during 2001, I will read them in an entirely different light. I think Harold Bloom (or some other fusty don) described a masterpiece as something dynamic that anticipates every angle of criticism and experience that comes into contact with it. Being possessed of relevance to any time in history, masterpieces are forever. That's why Shakespeare is constantly getting reinterpreted - set in Iraq, Wall Street, or in a one-man fringe production about Othello refracted through the lens of a tragically fumbled sexual encounter on the carpet behind the counter of Videobox in Kells.
Masterpieces from here on in, yall.
#3 Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)
Where to begin? The cover? Look at her. Staring inscrutably out at us, surrounded by more symbolic bric-a-brac than ya'd find in the Dutch Renaissance section of a leaving cert art history reader. Because of that cover image, nobody will ever impulse-buy Ys, bring it home, pop it on the stereo, listen to Emily and think 'fuckin' swizz, where's the sick beatz?'. The painting, by an artist called Benjamen Vierling who worked closely with Newsom, clearly indicates that this is an album with a shitload of, like, meaningful stuff and things in it - or, to paraphrase one of the founders of the tradition to which her lyrics clearly belong, it's a work that contains multitudes.
If the lyrics of Ys were laid out end-to-end, they would circumnavigate the earth three times over, with a bit left over for the moon. Apart from the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible, I don't think I have ever heard an album so incredibly text heavy. Over five lengthy songs, Newsom sings her way through huge encyclopaedic blocks of near-prose, giving a strong impression that the words came first; that they were spewed out in the raw and the music had to catch up later. Because of this approach, the melodies feel unruly and strange. But where the Manic Street Preachers tied jarring interpretations of hair rock and punk to the ballast of Richie Edwards' word vomit, Newsom's dense text is augmented (I really believe the lyrics came first) by her virtuoso harp playing, her indescribably unusual-yet-beautiful voice, and by Van Dykes Parks' chimerical arrangements which bestow an aura of intense otherness to songs that were weird enough to begin with.
The oniony layers of depth in Newsom's lyrics on Ys would require a book to disseminate them properly (something sort of already done, funnily enough). They are knotted and fantastical, reference-heavy, allegorical, romantic, and sometimes delirious. Her subject matter is multifarious, veering from semantic riddles about the physical nature of meteorites to parables about animals (a monkey and a bear hang out in a song that starts out like a nursery rhyme but develops into a sophisticated tale of shifting sexual control between a male and a female). In fact, Joanna Newsom sings so much about animals on Ys that she's almost shamanistic, switching perspectives within a zooful of birds, bears, monkeys, butterflies and dogs. Inanimate objects get a look in too - "push me back into a tree", she sings on Sawdust and Diamonds. It's sensual and often rapturous stuff that takes delight in using the fruits of the North American landscape (did I mention Walt Whitman? We might as well throw in Emerson too) to drive narratives of erotic and fraternal love.
Fraternal love. That's where I'm going to end this. My favourite song on Ys is its opening track Emily, in which Joanna's love for her scientist sister is invoked through an ever-building momentum of rhapsodic imagery and vocal somersaults (Newsom reminds me of Van Morrison in how her vocal inflections draw you toward meanings beyond the face of a lyric). Possibly referring to her sister's academic colleagues, she sings
"I make this claim and I'm not ashamed to say I know you better/ What they've seen is just a beam of your sun that banishes winter."
Of the many things I admire about Ys, I probably most like that Newsom's purest expression of devotion is to a sibling who taught her about astronomy as a child. There's an awestruck wonder in that song, wonder unchecked. And though I could go on like a verbally incontinent maniac, I'll leave us there; at 'awestruck wonder'.
MP3: Joanna Newsom-Emily