There’s a light in the wings, hits the system of strings

Sasha Frere-Jones seems at a bit of a loss writing about Joanna Newsom in this week’s New Yorker.

see the wires, the wires, the wires

“At first,” he writes, in what are, unfortunately, the article’s best lines, “she sounded to me like Lucille Ball reciting Edmund Spenser. She brought to mind a college student I knew who wore suspenders to show that she would not countenance this debased modern world.” (In the end he comes to find her “charming” and concludes by observing that though her music isn’t really rock and roll, audiences treat her like a rock star.)

You wonder if those were really his first thoughts, though, at least the suspenders part, since she was indeed — he does note — wearing suspenders when she played two packed sets at Webster Hall a couple weeks ago, one of which I was lucky enough to see. But Frere-Jones’s reference points aren’t all that different from what most writers note about her: she seems to dig the Renaissance and she has a seriously developed fashion sense.

photo by amy cobden for under the radar

I can relate, though, to not knowing quite how to write about Newsom or her music — the dense, lyrical, captivating song cycle on her new album Ys in particular: five epic songs, almost all clocking in at over ten minutes long.

For one thing, though I’ve had the album on my iPod since September or so and had listened to it dozens of times before I heard her play it live, beginning to end, I felt at a loss to make sense of the songs without a lyrics sheet. They felt storylike, meaningful, riddled with twists and turns in plot and character and plays on words, folding back on verses or a chorus only in what seemed to be the most important moments (the opening and closing lines of “Sawdust and Diamonds,” for instance).

Once the album had finally been released last month and I had the words in front of me, I was stunned at how unable I’d been to piece them together into the coherent narratives they do, ultimately, form. One reason may have been that so much happens for Newsom, lyrically, line to line, even phrase to phrase, given her reliance on alliteration and internal rhyme or her preference for gerunds and adverbs, -ings and -lies, formal properties that combine to give a listener the lovely but disconcerting feeling that you’re tumbling down a hill. (Or, as she’d put it, tumbling, tumb-l-ing, tum-bull-ing.)

As in: “I wasn’t born of a whistle, or milked from a thistle at twilight. / No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully and formed, knock-kneed and upright.”

Or this: “While the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed, / and the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze.”

But when you’re dealing with songs that stretch, in some cases, to twelve or even to sixteen minutes, all the local word play (like the whimsical animals who populate the songs) can be deceptive, since more than anything these songs are about Big Things — love, sex, trust, death — things that seem too weighty for a 24-year-old. Who does she think she is, the next Neil Young or Joni Mitchell? Oh wait — she probably is. Like their offerings when they were her age, her songs are hopeful, often, but they’re not without their shadow sides.

As in these lines, which I’ve finally realized are about looking up at stars and meteorites with her father and sister (who happens, so I’ve read, to be an astronomer):

Pa pointed out to me, for the hundredth time tonight,
the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light.

Squint skyward and listen —
loving him, we move within his borders:
just asterisms in the stars’ set order.

    We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight, at this thing:

landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —

Once you get past the fact that someone’s just dropped a word like asterism in what’s ostensibly a pop song, you’re not sure which part’s giving you goosebumps: the image of two sisters ordered by a father’s love or the image of transience that follows, the notion that these bodies will burn out, that the moment she describes can’t possibly last for a hundred years.

And still there’s joy enough to look at. The same song, “Emily,” also contains what may be her best and most-quoted lines yet — a “mnemonic for science students everywhere,” as Carl Wilson put it — again about perception and transience, as she recalls how her sister taught her “That the meteorite is the source of the light, / And the meteor’s just what we see; / And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.”


Musically, the idea of Lucille Ball channeling Edmund Spenser doesn’t sound too appealing, and Newsom has her share of detractors, even as her following of adoring critics and fans continues to grow. Ys, even more than her 2004 debut, Milk-Eyed Mender, will force the lovers and haters even farther apart. There are those who find her voice — a nasal twang that sounds at times like a rawer Sinead O’Connor and at others like an Appalachian Bjork — at best affected and at worst unbearable. (My kids give me that “You listen to weird music, dad” look when her songs are on.)

Count me among the lovers. Ys makes it plain that we are dealing, here, with one of the best new songwriters in decades. Without the music, her songs might make fine (if weird) poems, but Newsom has crafted a musical style that carries these poems skyward to transcend the “freak folk” label she and some of her fellow travelers — Devendra Banhart, say — have been lumped under. Early interviews with Newsom all emphasized the fact that she grew up in the arts mecca of Nevada City, CA, with people like Terry Riley as neighbors. The fact feels important because her music, like Brian Eno’s or Jim O’Rourke’s (the latter of whom mixed Ys), bridges worlds of serious contemporary composition and popular music. If Newsom’s lyrics rarely repeat themselves, her harp lines are all about repetition: in places she even seems to invoke Steve Reich’s polyrhythmic pulses. Her seriousness as a composer and not just a songwriter is underscored on the new songs by Van Dyke Parks’s lush orchestration, though her live set strips down the score to a set of essential accompaniment lines on traditional instruments — banjo, accordion, bouzouki, assorted percussion — which reminds us that the songs are hers, the multigenerational production dreamteam (rounded out by Steve Albini) notwithstanding.

If the songs on Ys are ultimately about the way bodies wear and the impressions they leave behind (consider the implications present in the song title “Only Skin”), her live set drives the point home in ways I never could have imagined before seeing her. Two hour-and-a-half sets on the night that we saw her, holding up that harp, gripping and plucking bass lines and melodies, her lungs somehow sustaining songs that long? It was nothing short of astounding. These are songs to wear a body out. Or to stare at for a hundred years. Or both. The realization of how physically taxing these songs must be to play — she’s been driven at times by blisters to switch from harp to harpsichord or piano — offers all the more reason to rejoice that the recordings will endure. 

16 responses to “There’s a light in the wings, hits the system of strings”

  1. Rachel says:

    For me, the most illuminating part of Frere-Jones’s discussion of Newsom was the comparison with Tori Amos, which at first seems facille, but made a lot of sense the more I thought about it. While both artists’ work is often mistaken as dippy–or worse, twee–because of its oblique lyrical content, it also shares a lot of musical common ground. Both rely on technical virtuosity, diction that is idiosyncratic (to say the least), and a general uncategorizability that is dismissed by the mainstream but fiercely embraced by fans. While some of Newsom’s advocates may not appreciate the parallels, they have helped me find a way into her music that I might otherwise have missed.

    The biggest contrast, musically at least, is that Amos has an interest in exploring the pop idiom that Newsom doesn’t seem to share. She’s also spread out considerably in her fifteen years as a solo artist–moving beyond just piano to experiment with lush orchestration, traditional rock accompaniment, gospel vocals, and electronica. It will be interesting to see where Newsom chooses to go from here.

    At the outset of Tori Amos’s career, a lot of critics compared her to Kate Bush, which seemed to me (at first) to be an unfairly narrow and likewise facile comparison. But listening to Bush’s recent Aerial double album–which, although sonically gorgeous, requires endurance and rewards repeated, patient listens–I think she’s a tremendous artist, and one to which both Amos and Newsom owe a huge debt, since she’s blazed a trail as a prodigy who has gone on to make music from the perspective of an adult woman, one who is sensual and spiritual, intelligent and iconoclastic.

    Nice post, Bryan.

  2. Lisa Parrish says:

    I’m with you on the Kate Bush thing, Rachel – several times at the Joanna Newsom concert, and then listening to the CD afterward, I was struck by how similar her swoops, vocal acrobatics and general ambience was to K. Bush. Both Stella and I were swept away at her show in the little Black Cat club, which usually has crappy sound but on that night was thankfully clear and crisp.

    Great post, Bry – and I love the vision of M and A rolling their eyes at hearing that high, warbly voice piping out of your stereo. Also, was anyone else surprised to learn that Joanna Newsom and SF mayor Gavin Newsom are distant cousins? Funny.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, beautifully written review, Bryan… As you know, a few years ago, after I first heard Joanna Newsom, I dismissed her prematurely, instantly turned off by that voice. Of course, you were the one who forced me to give her another listen. For me, she was an acquired taste, but now I’m truly smitten, somehow, despite the fact that she still has a baby-girl voice (which oddly sometimes sounds like an old-lady voice) and that everything about her visual aesthetic (renaissance-faire garb, etc.) is usually an immediate turn off for me, as well.

    She was just here last week, and I am sad to say I missed both performances. Tim and Jen were able to go, though… Tim/Jen?

  4. Ruben Mancillas says:

    OK, I’ll give her a try.

    I am with Jeremy that there have been one or two (or three) things that have kept me off of the Newsom bandwagon but Bryan and others offer a compelling argument/appreciation so I will stop, if only for a moment, staring at that dead thing on her head-now that says Neil Young to me-and give this stuff a listen.

    I do like Van Dyke Parks.

    Does anyone really like Sasha Frere-Jone, by the way?

    Did have to laugh a bit at the props given the physicality of her playing and singing. I for one have never had to wrestle a harp around a stage and I do remember a picture of a certain shorts wearing musician wielding a bass much larger than himself but is this what we’ve come to in rock/pop music?

    Not to completely buy into some macho myths but I will admit to being more of an Iggy with the peanut butter and broken glass or Townsend’s fingernail shearing windmill kind of guy than the notion that someone had to switch from harp to the harpsichord due to the wear and tear of performing.

    Screaming “I’ve got blisters on my fingers” suddenly takes on a whole new context.

    And a very happy birthday to our mutual friend and west coast editor

  5. Dave says:

    The physicality of the performance Bryan and I went to was insane. It was her second show of the night, and she played a few songs from the first album, followed by the entire Ys album, and then a long encore, all on the harp. Those Ys songs are ridiculously long and she’s playing harp almost constantly. My fingers ached just watching her.

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    She must have worn herself out in NY, because in DC, though the crowd cheered and clapped for a good 10 minutes after the show, she never reappeared. They’d kept the house lights down, so everyone thought she’d return, but we were disappointed. A minor flaw in an otherwise fantastic show.

  7. Tim Wager says:

    I’ve been wanting to weigh in on this all day, but haven’t had the time until now. I’ve seen Newsom play 3 times, once when she played solo and did almost all of Milk-Eyed Mender and one new song (“Sawdust and Diamonds”), once last March when she played all of Ys solo (I think she had just finished recording her parts for the songs and was working with Van Dyke Parks on the arrangements), and once just last week when she played with the small group in Malibu and did pretty much the set that Bryan describes here (with 3 songs from the first record as an encore – sorry Lisa that she didn’t have it in her to do more in DC). All 3 times have been truly amazing performances.

    For me, it’s not just the physical stamina it must take, but the mental stamina as well. The focus that it takes to play those long songs – each with repeated, intricate playing on her harp combined with extremely intricate lyrics, often sung syncopated in contrast to the multiple rhythms of her harp – has to be extraordinary. It exhausts me just listening closely to the lyrics, let alone thinking about what it takes for her to remember them all (and to have composed them in the first place).

    The 2nd of these shows (solo doing Ys) stands for me as one of the most intense, monumental performances I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know the songs (apart from having heard one of them once before at the first show). She came out and played and sang for an hour straight, hardly stopping to talk, just once in a while to tune. She also had to deal with a poor PA that night (some of you may know that the sound system at the Echo often picks up a Spanish-language radio station that bleeds into the live sound – so frustrating). This was my favorite time seeing her so far, despite the sound problems. Hearing those songs fresh, with just her on the harp, was literally jaw-dropping. I love the arrangements and loved hearing the band’s adaptations of them, but at times they distract from her harp playing.

    Not to get into a Mancillas beatdown here – but well, what the hell, he lives for confrontation, doesn’t he? – I’d have to say the kind of physical performances that you seem to prefer, Ruben, are weighted toward the hyper-masculine. (So face it, you’ve bought into the mach myths.) I’ve seen Iggy play and Jesus he rocks. But it’s the sort of performance that works in short, powerful bursts – flinging himself around the stage, screaming for a few seconds, standing still, coiling, springing and flying and then screaming some more, standing still for a guitar solo from Ron Asheton, then jumping up on an amp and down onto the floor, and so on. He may be in almost constant motion, but it has no set pattern. It’s fucking anarchy and therein lies its brilliance. Again, a truly amazing physical performance, but it doesn’t take a great deal of focus, discipline, or stamina to remember the lyrics to Now I Wanna Be Your Dog (and of course that’s a great deal of the point).

    Sitting in one place for over an hour with one’s arms stretched out, hands splayed onto the strings of a harp, plucking those strings very hard in extremely complex patterns, singing 12-minute through-composed songs that have virtually no repeated lyrics – therein lies a great deal of strength, but it’s not the sort of ring-the-bell-at-the-county-fair-strength that calls attention to itself as spectacle, generally favored by Iggy et al.

    When I was in grade school, one of my teachers would have a little competition every once in a while as a form of humbling the boys. He’d promise a reward for whoever could hold his/her arms out horizontal to the ground for the longest. The winner was almost always a girl, because their strength is weighted towards stamina. The boys could usually do more push-ups, but that’s not the only kind of strength there is.

    And btw, I generally *hate* Sasha Frere-Jones’s reviews. The one for Newsom’s record and NYC show was fine, but didn’t really bring more to the record than I’d already read or heard elsewhere, Amos comparison notwithstanding.

    Zitter’s birthday? Whereza tequila and gummie bears?!?

  8. Ruben Mancillas says:










    Tim, what kind of school was that, what with the humbling exercises and all?

    My friends, I don’t look for confrontation. It just finds me.

    (Ignore this if you were the guy wearing a Matt Leinart jersey and mouthing off in my presence on Saturday night).

    The impact of Newsom’s physical performance must really be that compelling for all of you to have commented on it to this degree.

    But why exactly are we astonished at her strength again? The size of the harp? That whole arms out/horizontal thing? It just better not be because she’s a girl.

    We saw a Han-Na Chang recital last night and an awareness of her obvious physical exertions neither diminished nor greatly enhanced the excellent performance. They asked Rachmaninoff why he didn’t grimace or swoon during his performances like most virtuosos and he replied that truly good players didn’t need to call attention to such things.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have my beloved Iggy. I consider him the best live performer I’ve ever seen so my bias is clear. But he’s a not exactly built like Danzig, is he? Newsom, by the way, is probably taller than little ol’ Glenn. But if there’s a county fair somewhere that features Iggy Pop trying to ring the bell color me impressed and count me in.

    Can I put my arms down now?

  9. Dave says:

    She didn’t grimace. She just played a hard, physical instrument for an hour and a half and sang.

    I’m sure your arms are already down.

    Happy birthday, Jeremy.

  10. jamie says:

    Yeah, as a longtime fan of Joanna’s and a chronicler of her early days, I was excited to see she’d merited a NYer Frere-Jones review, but he did indeed seem at a loss to think/write about her work. As for themes/lyrics weighty for a 24-year old (as is her instrument, indeed, for someone her size), I’m fairly still new to Ys and marvelling over the meteorite stuff, but here are a few written back when she was 20 and 21 that still blow this 42-year-old’s mind (accuracy not guaranteed, but close):

    There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road.
    There are some dragons who were built to have and hold.
    And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly,
    and some great bellies ache with many bumblebees, and they sting so terribly.


    never get so attached to a poem
    you forget truth that lacks lyricism
    never draw so close to the heat that you forget that you must eat.


    and the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers
    and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words
    when across the sky sheet the impossible birds
    in the steady illiterate movement homewards

    and, simply

    “this is not my song, but it’s mine to use.”

  11. Tim Wager says:

    “truly good players didn’t need to call attention to such things” – and she doesn’t call attention to her feats of stamina and endurance. it’s all about the songs, man. as a viewer/listener, though, it’s nearly impossible to ignore how effortlessly she does what has to be very difficult.

    iggy may not be all bulked out like danzig, but he does a whole lotta calling attention to his muscles and body. check out the first image on his website. dude’s cut. plus i can’t be sure, but it looks like he might want us to take a wee peek at his dick.

    and btw, ruben, i went to a perfectly normal reform school.

  12. Thanks, everyone, for the great comments.

    Some thoughts:

    –Rachel: I didn’t take up the Tori Amos thing on purpose because I’ve been such a stubborn Tori Amos detractor. I loved the first album when it was first released and bought a couple more, but I just didn’t stay on board. It could very well be my problem, and you know I respect you as a listener, fan, and critic. But the Amos thing rubbed me the wrong way. I realize he was comparing the physicality of their performance styles and not their songs, but there’s such a lightness to Joanna’s heaviness that separates her (in my limited mind) from someone like Tori Amos that I thought the comparison would be misleading to New Yorker readers who hadn’t listened to Newsom. I also think Tori Amos has been limited to some degree by the moment she appeared: it’s hard in my mind to separate her from the identity politics of the early 90s, and being saddled with the burden of identity politics can be death for an artist once the culture has moved past such preoccupations (for better or worse). I worried about doing the same thing when I invoked Sinead O’Connor. I do like the Kate Bush comparison, though.

    –Lisa. Wow. I would have loved the Black Cat as a venue, just for size purposes. We were at Webster Hall — a big old space — and I had to strain my calves standing on tiptoe to be able to see her. I kick myself now for not getting to the Mercury Lounge shows from 2004.

    –Jeremy: Her album cover aside (which I read as more than a little tongue in cheek) I take it that she’s annoyed by the Renaissance-faire pigeon-hole too. Check out her comments on “Joanna Newsom-style” fashions available in LA boutiques and on eBay in this interview, which I really liked (in spite of its overwrought introduction), and from which I nabbed that amazing photo of her in the animal skin hat. It’s always been funny to me that you had to acquire a taste for her; I’d think she was right up your alley, but maybe you just like whisperers more than squeakers.

    How did you miss those shows? I thought you would be front and center, given that the opener was her new beau, my man Smog (now going under his own name, Bill Callahan). I was really unhappy that he wasn’t playing with her on this coast. He was playing solo sets, which is the best way to see him, I think. BTW, this morning I had a fantasy that Bill covered “Emily.” I can hear his baritone belting out those lines at a little slower tempo.

    –Ruben: to me it makes no sense to compare glam punkers with folk harpists. Is it just a rock purist thing? Because I don’t see her music as being all that related to rock and roll anyway. Maybe if you wanted to compare her to Sandy Denny or Vashti Bunyan or somebody like that I could understand where you’re coming from, but there’s certainly more than one way to be physically engaged as a musician. To respond to your later question about gender: no, it’s not just that she’s a girl (although you’re a fool not to notice how hottt she is no matter where you fall in terms of sexual predilection); the performer she reminds me of most is Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy. (I know I’m starting to sound like Zoilus, but I would simply argue that my shared taste with Carl is one reason I like his writing so much.) Owen has covered “Peach, Plum, Pear” for a while and I really hope he takes up the challenge of covering one of the epic songs, too. I like the fact they they both appeal to indie rock crowds with a form of pop music that pushes toward high art contemporary composition (or whatever you want to call contemporary “classical” music). But I was an orchestra nerd. So sue me.

    –Tim: Have you ever been close enough to see if she uses lyrics sheets? I’m jealous of the performances you’ve seen. And no — I don’t generally like SFJ reviews either, though sometimes he really lands an amazing piece. Remember the Nick Cave profile? That was a great one.

    –Jamie: Thanks for weighing in. I followed your link to the 2003 piece you wrote on Joanna as “prodigy” (or not), which is such a terrific article I wish I had seen it three years ago!

    I agree with you that her lyrics, even early on, were compelling, even stunning in places. They did remind me, though, of really good grad student writing — even some of the lines you quote. I’m an English professor, so of course I love lines about signifiers and signifieds (even if I haven’t used that vocabulary since I was an undergrad). But that, or the panopticon reference you note in the beginning of your piece, actually made her seem a little immature to me in her earlier stuff. As much as I love Milk-Eyed Mender (and it topped my list of favorite albums that year) it had a few moments that felt like juvenilia. Maybe it’s just that when I was a college freshman I loved ee cummings so much that all the poems I wrote sounded like ee cummings, and I certainly got that vibe early on in her lyrics (all those bridges and balloons and dirigibles and some extra syllables thrown in here or there).

    With Ys I think she really moves past that. These songs — and not just because of their length — feel weightier, more considered. Not that she didn’t prove her mettle before: I’m just noting that she’s maturing as a writer, which makes me hungry for even more. I hope her career is as long an varied as Bjork’s, and that she doesn’t undergo some sort of disappearance for decades a la Vashti.

    I don’t have a hard time imagining Ys as being recognized, forty or fifty years from now, as one of the great records of the early 21st century.

  13. okay. that comment was longer than the original post. sorry.

    a few things i realized yesterday i wish i had included in the original piece:

    –though i still haven’t wrapped my head around each individual song, i should have noticed the taxidermy trope in “sawdust and diamonds” as related to the figures of bodies wearing out. in this case, they’re strangely preserved. related to her headgear in that photo?

    –the album sounds great on vinyl. in fact, i played “sawdust & diamonds” at record club off the LP. ahh. and opening that LP and taking in the packaging was the best music buying experience i’ve had in years.

    –i wanted to note that though i love the parks/albini/o’rourke production and recording and mixing, i love the way that S&D stands as a centerpiece without the lush arrangements, just her and her harp. it was also a standout in the live show. once she had played the first two tracks in order i had the suspicion that she was going to play it straight through beginning to end. it made me want to shout out a request for the next one in the sequence (in this case, S&D again) but i refrained.

    –I wanted to note how deliberate and smart she is about composition. She had some training in college but was apparently never satisfied and switched back and forth between music and creative writing. I’m not sure she graduated. In addition to the Riley and Reich namechecks, I should have noted her mention, in that Under the Radar interview, of her indebtedness to Henry Cowell, another great California experimental strings composer, and the strong similarities I hear in her songs to Hans Otte’s wonderfully titled Wassermannmusik.

  14. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    I’ve never been very close to the stage, but I know she doesn’t use lyric sheets. There was nothing but her and the harp, chair, and mics on the stage at the Echoplex – no piles of paper on the floor or music stand, and there’s just not enough room on that harp to have all those words written out and taped onto it.

    The Malibu show was great for several reasons, including having Callahan opening. I agree that seeing him solo is better than with a band. I could really focus on his lyrics and delivery. (I hoped he’d come out and do backing vox on Only Skin (as he does on the record), but no such luck.) Also, the seats were comfy and the sound great. No standing on tiptoe necessary.

    Strangely, I too had the impulse (which I suppressed) to shout out for Sawdust & Diamonds right before she played it.

    I need to check out Cowell and Otte. Wassermanmusik, indeed. Heh.

    Did you get your turntable, then?

  15. Tim Wager says:

    Okay, I’m commenting too much here, so this is my last one for at least a few hours, I promise.

    Here’s a link to a recent episode of “All Songs Considered” with Joanna Newsom. She’s interviewed and also dj’s some songs from influences, including Lindsey Buckingham and Sandy Denny.

    And here is a link to a page on The Wire’s website that has a link to the unedited transcript of Newsom’s interview that appeared in the November issue. (Sorry, that article doesn’t appear to be readily available on line.) First topic? Bleeding fingers (which, btw, she downplays).

  16. Stella says:

    I’m fairly cold-hearted when it comes to anything romantic, poetic, earnest etc., but I’m totally transported by this album, and the Black Cat gig was phenemonal even though it was impossible to see her unless you were at least 6 feet tall. I haven’t read the lyrics yet, but I’m enjoying having the narratives unfold randomly every time I listen.

    I was a huge Kate Bush fan and can’t fail to make the links…she also reminds me of the 60s/70s folk singer Melanie…something about the urgency/passion of how she sings.

    Can’t stop listening…and would love to hear the vinyl.